The naming of a new Volkswagen Silicon Valley research center that’s really a 20-year-old Volkswagen research center? Huge yawn. A Halloween-colored, 11-window 1962 Type 2 bus with weird organic styling, pure-electric powertrain, facial recognition and holographic infotainment? We’re wide awake, eyes and ears open. It’s no wonder VW spliced the two announcements together, previewing innovations yet to come from its reinvented innovations facility with a one-of-a-kind electrified Microbus.
The VW facility previously known as the Electronics Research Laboratory (ERL) is in the process of a full rebranding and expansion, from here on in to be known as the Innovation and Engineering Center California (IECC). So yeah, not exactly the type of news that’s getting any hearts racing, at least not without a futuristic e-Type 2 to spice it into something worth taking a bite out of.
The ERL had a good run, growing from three employees to a team of more than 180 in 20+ years while playing an integral role in notable technologies like the 2005 DARPA Grand Challenge-winning “Stanley” autonomous vehicle. So to celebrate the combination of history and new horizons going on in Belmont, California, Volkswagen revealed the Type 20 for the occasion, brilliantly blending classic, modern and next-generation design
A quick stop on the journey between electric T6.1 and I.D. Buzz, the Type 20 beautifully combines some of VW’s proudest heritage with a host of experimental technologies not quite ready for roadways. Things heat up the moment the driver approaches the door, with a pneumatic suspension system developed in collaboration with Porsche lifting the van up to greet the driver. The facial recognition system scans facial features with a 720p wide-angle camera pointed in the second driver’s side window, analyzes them through sensory software running on the Nvidia Jetson TX2, and pops the door locks.
Inside, a more natural, conversational breed of digital assistant (we’ll believe it when it hears us, the first time) provides voice control capabilities, utilizing a trio of microphones secured out front, in the driver’s area and in the rear passenger cell. The system communicates with those outside the van using both audio and LED-based visual cues. A Looking Glass II holographic infotainment display in the dashboard creates three-dimensional images without the need to wear distracting glasses.
As far as the bright-orange organic-growth styling of the wheels, side mirror supports and interior structural elements go, Volkswagen developed them with Autodesk’s generative design, a process that concentrates strength while minimizing material and weight.
A custom all-electric VW Type 2 is always a winner, but the powertrain specs on this one are rather underwhelming. A small 10-kWh battery pack powers a single electric motor for up to 120 hp and 173 lb-ft of torque.
The Type 20 may be the newsy headline-maker for now, but the IECC will certainly have more of an impact on the future of Volkswagen technology. Split into separate innovation and engineering centers, its employees will focus on connected car, intelligent cockpit and autonomous driving and parking projects for the North American region. It will serve as VW’s largest vehicle research facility outside of Germany.
“We are excited to move into our next chapter as the IECC, to continue designing innovations that will bring the Volkswagen Group vehicles into the future with cutting-edge technology,” says Nikolai Reimer, IECC senior VP. “The Type 20 is a fantastic example of how we celebrate our heritage while striving to advance our technology.”
It’s also a fantastic example of how to make a boring, eyeball-deterring headline much more intriguing.