Volkswagen Type 20 concept
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The Type 20 concept vehicle in front of Volkswagen’s Innovation and Engineering Center California (IECC) in Belmont, Calif. (IECC)

Volkswagen turns classic van into innovative, retro-ride EV

VW’s electrified, interactive Type 20 concept is half-century vintage on the outside, tomorrow’s thinking everywhere else.

“Hello, Eric,” said the vehicle. “Are you ready to go?” responded Eric Glaser, a principal product designer at Volkswagen’s Innovation and Engineering Center California (IECC) in Belmont, Calif.  “My battery is currently at 95 percent,” replied Otto, the pet name given to the computer-generated voice of the Type 20 concept vehicle. “Let’s go,” said Otto, as an LED light behind the iconic logo on the front fascia pulsated in sync with the voice.  

The Type 20 is the Volkswagen 1962 Type 2 van that Glaser and his team transformed into a rolling showcase of 21st-century technology. The transplanting of sensors, screens, processors and a 120-hp electric powertrain into the 11-window Type 2 was conducted to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of Volkswagen’s research facility in the heart of Silicon Valley. The building now houses nearly 200 employees.   

Technology that stirs emotions 
Glaser approached the driver-side door and peered into a facial-recognition camera, which paused for a split second to process his visage. In a production vehicle, such a system would likely be used to unlock the doors and turn on the EV. However, the original doors from the 1962 vehicle, which were left intact, don’t have power locks. “We think that facial recognition is a technology that’s appropriate for future products,” he said. “People are using their face to open their phone and laptop and maybe even their home with a smart lock,” explained Glaser. “We’re trying to understand if the car could be part of that trend.”  

The IECC’s purpose is to identify promising new technologies developed in Silicon Valley and to investigate which ones belong in the next generation of vehicles. For the voice controls, VW partnered with Sensory, a Santa Clara-based company that pioneered neural-network approaches for embedded speech recognition in consumer electronics. Engineers at IECC worked with generative-design experts at San Rafael’s Autodesk to manufacture selected parts in a new, organic way. Other project partners were far-flung. Southern California’s Electric GT converts classic hotrods into EVs. Looking Glass Factory, from Brooklyn and Hong Kong, provided the holographic dashboard display.

The 57-year-old vehicle has a new digital cockpit with an instrumental panel customized for each driver. A large screen mounted on the ceiling serves as a digital sunroof, granting a view of an imaginary stellar skyscape. The rear seating is arranged into a communal space. Mounted in the back hatch are two electric skateboards for on-demand mobility for the last mile. Glaser summed it up: “The Type 20 is a platform to change some fundamental ways that we interact with our vehicles, but put in a super-emotional classic California package.”

Can we talk?
Volkswagen uses technology frameworks from its partners, but the hard work of applying those tools to automotive applications occurs under the IECC’s roof. For example, the voice interaction between vehicle and driver utilizes data from existing natural-language tool kits. But Volkswagen developed the vehicle-oriented logic and lexicon that allows three onboard microphones to differentiate between driver and passengers and to answer contextual questions. 

This is not technology for technology’s sake. The IECC wants to find innovations to help improve the driving experience, such as seamless entry without needing to carry keys or a smartphone. “It’s a simple use case, but prototyping and being able to experience it tells us if it’s compelling enough to implement,” said Glaser.

The visual appeal of the 11-window microbus, one of the most beloved designs in automotive history, was left intact in the Type 20. However, it was embellished with bright orange components – wheels, a steering wheel, the side-mirror frames and rear-seat supports – that look as if they were grown on another planet. Volkswagen designers worked with Autodesk to create these elements using so-called generative design. The process required a lot of trial-and-error.

Designers begin by feeding the physical constraints of a given part into the Autodesk software. In the case of the wheels, that means inputting physical dimensions, where the brakes go and the profile of the lug nuts, as well as engineering parameters like the vehicle’s horsepower, weight and impact ratings. Then they let the software on its own to generate multiple versions of the wheel’s shape.

“The software figures out a bunch of optimized results, some of which look insane and not very nice,” explained Glaser. “Then you pick the ones you like and you run another generation as though you’re doing genetic research.” He said that approximately 300 versions were generated. And with each iteration, the team trained the AI to get closer to a design that meets the vehicle’s functional requirements while satisfying human aesthetics.

“Why can’t generative design be visible, and maybe beautiful?” Glaser asked. The approach usually is applied to parts buried in the vehicle’s chassis or engine compartment. But VW applied generative design to the Type 20’s steering wheel so drivers could touch, use and experience an AI-produced component. The wheels, which were generatively designed then cast in aluminum alloy, are 20% lighter than those designed via conventional means.

Data is the new fuel
Using a 55-year-old platform to showcase the latest digital technology presented unanticipated challenges. For starters, the team didn’t have CAD files for the ’62 vehicle because the original work predated the digital age by several decades. So VW used a small lidar-like device on a robotic arm to produce three-dimensional scans of the van – giving engineers new detailed CAD files to use as a foundation.

Vehicles from the mid-20th century had thin side bodies and lacked cavities to store computer hardware. Engineers didn’t know where to house the PCs needed to run voice and vision functions, LED lights, the holographic screen and other high-tech equipment. But they soon realized that the Type 20’s conversion from internal combustion to EV created a space that could be used to house those processors: they are located in the convenient empty area left when the fuel tank was removed.

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