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Virtual reality is used at the IECC to evaluate prospective new-vehicle interiors. (Volkswagen)

A view inside Volkswagen's Silicon Valley lab

The pioneering California hub enters its third decade on a new wave of innovation.

On July 1, Volkswagen renamed its Silicon Valley outpost. The former Electronics Research Lab (ERL) based in Belmont, Calif., now is the Innovation and Engineering Center California (IECC). In its 20-year history, the list of the center’s achievements includes winning the 2005 DARPA Grand Challenge, the first use of Google Earth and predictive models in vehicle navigation and approximately 175 patents related mostly to autonomous driving and connected mobility. The engineers and social scientists in Belmont are in the business of cracking tough nuts - but none as hard as the entrenched mindset of auto-industry veterans resistant to change.

A day after the official renaming, VW gave a tour to a small group of media including Automotive Engineering. There we met Brian Lathrop, senior principal scientist, who joined then-ERL in 2004 as a freshly minted Ph.D in cognitive psychology from the University of California at Santa Cruz. “I don’t think they knew what they hired me to do at the time,” Lathrop quipped. His part of the tour was a demo showing off VW Group’s first series-production part produced using 3D digital light synthesis (DLS) technology - in this case, the interior structure of a side mirror for the Lamborghini Urus sport-utility.

“The technology is easy,” said Lathrop. “The hard part is convincing people that the risks are not as high as they perceive.” He admitted that it had taken years to develop the right psychological formula to change minds. When he started at the center 15 years ago, the iPod was cutting-edge tech. “The consensus within the company at that time was that the iPod was a gimmick that would never take off,” he said. “They said the Zune was just as good.” So Lathrop had to settle with VW developing an iPod adapter, which became the iPod Satellite Adapter (ISA), the lab’s first official product.

Since then, Lathrop spent a decade building a team of UX designers, investigated the use of virtual reality in car cabins and promoted generative design that allows computers to produce new forms. His passion these days is applying the concept of edge computing to mass manufacturing. “Why not take your manufacturing resources and capacity and put them closest to where they are needed?” he asked.

3D printing advances
Lathrop’s change-making formula at VW is multi-faceted. Procurement and finance guys want to know about cost savings. The production teams needed to hear that 3D additive manufacturing on-site could make the process 100-times faster - an actual fact. Designers want to know about the possibility of new form factors. Logistics teams want to reduce operational friction. “You need different arguments lined up depending on who your audience is,” he said. “It’s a lot of fun.”

Meanwhile, engineers can often be convinced by superior technology. In the case of additive manufacturing, it’s with technology developed by Carbon3D, a five-year-old startup headquartered in in nearby Redwood City. Based on its latest funding round, Carbon3D is valuated at a mind-boggling $2.5 billion. Instead of using a traditional printer head, Carbon3D exposes pools of liquid resin to UV light, essentially pulling the desired part out from the material. “Think Terminator 2,” said Lathrop.

The net result is a stronger single structure. “It’s the difference between a solid piece of oak and particle board,” Lathrop explained. He is also excited that all of Carbon3D’s printers, including the one housed at the Belmont facility, get over-the-air (OTA) updates to improve its algorithms over time. If that approach sounds similar to what a certain Bay Area OEM does, it’s not a coincidence. Carbon 3D’s chief technology officer was formerly the VP of software and electrical integration at Tesla.

It’s essential that VW’s Innovation and Engineering Center California is located in Silicon Valley. “We only have a couple of guys working on additive manufacturing here in Belmont,” said Lathrop. “But guess what: There are 200 to 300 guys across the rest of the company working on it. If we could leverage technology from a company that’s five miles down the road, that gives us a significant advantage.”

‘Epic turning point’
Nikolai Reimer, senior VP of the IECC and its executive director, explained that the timing for introducing innovations can be tricky. Too much change, too fast, can kill good ideas. Reimer recounted the story of how the lab in 2007 built a personal assistant/robot to sit on the car’s dashboard and have a conversation with the driver.

The reaction from VW teams outside of Silicon Valley was less than enthusiastic. “People said that we will never have something like that in one of our cars’” Reimer said. “At the time, there was no Alexa, no Siri, and no connectivity.” With some satisfaction, Reimer explained that more than a decade later nearly every showcase concept car features a voice-controlled digital assistant in the car.

Fortunately, as VW’s California innovation office enters its third decade, reluctance to change has given way to a new era of rapid-fire innovation. “With the technology and infrastructure evolving so fast, things just happen,” said Reimer. “We’re at an epic turning point.”

On the tour of the facility, we saw how virtual reality is being used to iterate vehicle interior design. We also learned about collaborations on autonomous vehicles between IECC and national disability groups. In the prototyping lab, we saw a steering wheel in which its buttons and airbag stay in place, but the rim used by drivers to steer recedes into the dash. 

For every idea that might sound crazy today, Reimer and the 200-strong staff see the potential to deploy new technology to enhance the driving experience. That’s the case with innovative navigation tools first rolled out by VW in 2016. The code that predicts the best route for millions of commuters around the world every day continues to be refined and enhanced at the Belmont facility.

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