Six of us have been put into a Volkswagen van and shuffled off through the German countryside, for a whole lot of we’re not sure what. We weren’t blindfolded and gagged first, so that’s a good start. On a nondescript back road, the driver pulls off for a checkpoint. There are two rows of high chain-link fencing, both topped with razor wire. Oh good, a German prison. I hear they’re nice. The message is clear — no unauthorized entry, period. Secrecy is the order of the day here, and it isn’t a prison but Ehra-Lessien, Volkswagen’s private test facility. Secrecy is valued so highly at the track that it was built in the former no-fly zone near what was the East German border, just to keep spy photographers from flying overhead. The Cold War may be over, but the atmosphere lives on here.
Fortunately for us, we are part of a delegation of authorized personnel invited into the hallowed compound for just one day. Ehra-Lessien’s usual daily operations — namely, testing top-secret prototypes and next-gen pre-production mules — has ceased entirely so that Volkswagen’s development engineers can host a large-scale science fair for a hundred or so automotive and technology journalists from every corner of the earth. Even with routine ops on lockdown for the day, we’ve all been warned that security is of the utmost concern. To gain access to certain areas of the grounds, we’ll have to surrender anything that might possibly take a photo — digi-cam, cell phone, belt-buckle Minox — to the friendly armed guard…sorry, security officer. We’ve been told they have authorization to shoot; no one volunteers to see if they’re serious or not.
At the track’s inner ring, we’re greeted by the largest sea of seamless, unstriped asphalt we’ve ever seen. VW has set up several temporary demonstration courses with orange traffic cones, and we’ll soon see what they’re all about. We have come to see the future of mobility as Volkswagen envisions it.
The displays of the day fall into one of two categories — driver assistance technology or autonomous driving technology. Some of it is ready for prime time, but most of it needs more development before you can start checking option boxes at your local dealer. Regardless, it’s a fair assumption that most of what we’re seeing here is more science fact than science fiction.
We start with the driver-assistance technologies behind the wheel of a standard-production Passat CC. The highlight of this particular car is Lane Assist, which uses a camera, mounted inside above the rear-view mirror, to look at the road; a processor then reads the visual data and determines the left and right edges of the lane. If the car wanders to either edge without any definitive input from the driver, the car will steer itself back into the lane via input to the electromechanical power steering system.
The sensation is that of bouncing off some invisible force field. The driver, however, must keep his hands on the wheel, or the system will belt out an audible alarm if it thinks you’re leaving all of the driving to the computers. Remarkably, the system detects even the most minor steering input from the driver, meaning there is no resistance from the car in making gentle lane changes.
Lane Assist only works at speeds above 40 mph, and requires clearly defined lane stripes to function. The asphalt on the section of the test track we’re driving long ago faded to a light grey shade, and the stripes look to be several years old as well. Nevertheless, the system is still able to discern the contrast between the pavement and the stripes that defines the lane boundaries. Admittedly, any condition that changes the visual contrast — rain, snow, loose debris, etc. — could render this function temporarily useless, as will any unstriped road. Its intended advantage is to improve safety in highway conditions, where the constant rhythm of the road can make drivers inattentive. It’s also helpful for those times when drivers have other distractions, such as tuning the radio, talking on the phone, or responding to the needs of other passengers. This option is already available on the CC in Europe, and may find its way to the States sometime in 2009.
Lane Assist, however, is just a prelude to a more advanced system VW calls Integrated Lane Assistance (ILA). We drive another Passat CC, this one a development mule, to experience ILA, which combines the lane-detection camera with front-oriented radar (the same one used for active cruise control) to detect unforeseen obstacles, such as work crews, bicycles, pedestrians, or other objects in the traffic lane. Here, the car will aid the driver in maneuvering around these obstacles without leaving its intended lane if at all possible. Imagine rounding a bend to discover a work crew trimming trees in your lane, only you’re too busy looking at the navigation screen for the nearest Thai restaurant. You look up at the last second and panic, but the car is already steering you safely around the obstruction.
Sometimes accidents are unavoidable altogether, and the last resort is to minimize the opportunities for serious injuries to driver and passengers. By strapping a seatbelt pre-tensioner to the ABS system, VW has developed PyroBrake. We’re not exactly sure about the marketability of the name, but we’re lucky enough to get a first-hand demonstration by intentionally driving a Passat wagon into a fixed obstacle.
PyroBrake, like ILA, taps into the same sensors and logic that feed the active cruise-control system. However, it is an entirely passive system — you don’t have to have cruise control activated for it to function — that looks for inevitable impacts. When the system realizes a collision is eminent, it triggers a pyrotechnic device just like the ones used to activate seatbelt pre-tensioners in an accident. This event applies maximum braking force instantaneously for half a second without any input from the driver. The result in almost every test is a drop in the vehicle’s speed at the time of impact by roughly 3 mph. It may not sound like a lot, but the reduction in force transmitted to occupants of the crashing vehicle can be lifesaving.
Next, we get a look at Car-to-X communication. The X represents just about anything else on the road — other cars, emergency vehicles, traffic signals, parking garages, and so on. The idea is to give your car as much “look-ahead” capability as possible by receiving data wirelessly through local-area networks and the Internet. We are already seeing the first phases of this with real-time traffic reporting and GPS systems that offer re-routing based on traffic, but the future of this technology is far more reaching.
Let’s say, for example, you’re looking for a parking space in the city. You request parking assistance through your navigation system, and it looks for the closest lot with available spaces. It knows which garages have available slots, because in FutureLand, they are all broadcasting this information live, perhaps including their rates and hours of operation.
Another scenario is the ability to see “through” traffic ahead. If, for instance, the car three places ahead of you suddenly jams its brakes for an emergency situation, that information can be immediately broadcast to all surrounding vehicles. All of the vehicles in the immediate vicinity might automatically apply their own brakes to avoid a collision with the first car.
Other carmakers are working on similar technologies in an effort to reduce traffic congestion and to make the driving environment safer. Volkswagen is pushing forward in the hopes of establishing a standard protocol, and will initiate a four-year field trial later this year.
So it’s great that our cars will soon have the abilities to save us from ourselves, but when are they going to actually start driving us around so we can surf the ‘Net on our daily commutes instead of driving? No time soon, we’re told, though the idea has apparently been around forever. The VW engineers even go so far as to show us an illustration from the ’50s of a family cruising down the highway, the front seats swiveled toward the rear, with Mom and Dad playing cards with the kids in back. Cards? Really? Just as the oracles with the crystal balls hadn’t guessed right about Game Boys or iPhones, the engineers insist driving will always involve a certain degree of human interaction. Still, that hasn’t stopped them from building cars that drive themselves.
VW made big news a couple of years ago when it won the 2006 DARPA challenge with its Stanford University–developed autonomous Touareg named Stanley. Since then, it has expanded on the experience gained with Stanley and gotten to work on some additional self-drivers for other similar competitions. The goal is to eventually produce a so-called “intelligent car” that would allow for semi-automated driving under certain conditions.
Before anyone jumps to the conclusion that engineers are on a mission to make drivers obsolete, the team on hand quickly explains that their goal in developing semi-autonomous vehicles is not to eliminate the fun of driving, but rather to support comfort and safety in situations where driving simply isn’t fun. Imagine being able to auto-pilot your way through a long traffic jam, or stepping out of the car while it parks itself in a tight space.
To see how far off we still are from those goals, VW has wheeled out Junior, the Stanford University Passat that completed the 2007 DARPA Urban Challenge. We’re standing on an observation deck overlooking an imaginary urban landscape made of hay bales and traffic cones, and Junior must navigate a pre-determined route through it, including a U-turn, without the aid of a driver. He looks a little clumsy and jerky as he makes his way around, but Junior eventually completes most of the course, including the tricky stuff. For some reason, he gets confused on a straight section of street and simply shuts down. Not quite the finale VW was hoping for, but impressive nonetheless.
A more promising example is the self-parking car. VW already offers a mild self-parking option in Europe that steers the car into tight spaces but requires the driver to actuate the gas and brakes, just as in the Lexus LS460, which stirred up a lot of discussion on our side of the pond. For this demonstration, a kitted-out Passat sedan trolls a makeshift parking lot for an available space. As the driver passes an opening, the car measures both the width and the depth of the space. Once it has determined it will fit, the driver steps out and holds a remote control while the Passat begins its parking procedure, backing its way into the space, perfectly centered and parallel to the other cars. The driver’s only job at this point is to hold the button until the job is done. The system works perfectly. Upon returning to the car, the driver simply holds the exit button, and the car is pulled straight forward for retrieval. Yet another driver skill, developed at the expense of millions of wheel faces and chips of bumper paint, will soon be obsolete.
Our final demonstration at Wolfsburg’s little science fair is a GTI that is equipped with a portable electromechanical driver. In roughly two hours’ time, a conventional VW can be fitted with this contraption called the CART (Coordinated Automatic Reproducible Testing) device, which operates the gas, brakes, and steering robotically. Once it has been outfitted, the car can take instructions either from the computer or from a human driver. A pre-determined course is set out in advance, and the computer uses GPS data combined with real-time vehicle feedback to negotiate the course.
This little gadget has a very real future here at Ehra-Lessien; its purpose is to drive the same route over and over again with absolute consistency for testing purposes. A large part of development testing involves driving rigorous shakedown miles to see what cracks, breaks, squeaks, and rattles. It is not only tedious work, it can also be physically punishing, especially when drivers must repeatedly navigate the pothole course or traverse railroad crossings all day long. The CART device has the potential to eliminate the driver altogether for that type of rigorous testing.
Better yet, the CART system is nearly 100 percent accurate time after time. So if, for instance, you want to run identical wear tests on different shock absorbers or brake pads, you eliminate any potential for human error or variations in driving style — each car runs exactly the same route. To prove what a factor human error can be, the guys in the white lab coats set up a GTI for us to run on their test route, a basic low-speed autocross. An LED display in front of us would tell us whether we need to speed up, slow down, or move left or right to stay on pace. We are then given a ride in the CART-equipped GTI and our two performances are overlaid. It’s embarrassing how far off even the best of us are from the repeatable, predictable robot driver.
Our day inside the secret compound over, we get back in our van to contemplate the automotive future. It sure ain’t as scary as Ehra-Lessien.
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