Automakers need to stop thinking that all they need to do is build a better electric motor.
Nestled between the corporate offices of Silicon Valley giants, where visitors making wayward glances out the window will spot planes gliding over the San Francisco Bay before touchdown at SFO, is the Volkswagen Group's newest and largest research and development center outside of Germany. What opened as the automaker's Electronics Research Laboratory 20 years ago has today been repurposed as the VW Group's new Innovation and Engineering Center California (IECC) in order to broaden the scope of the facility's research and cement a presence in the heart of America's tech capital.
To signal the innovative tech we can expect to see out of the IECC, Volkswagen built a concept vehicle it dubs the "Type 20," what's essentially a 1962 Type 2 11-window Microbus retrofitted with the latest of Volkswagen's experimental design and technology. VW was kind enough to fly us out to Belmont, CA, just south of San Francisco, so we could roam its new center and get up close and personal with the Type 20.
Like Volkswagen's upcoming line of ID vehicles, the Type 20 is an electric car. That being said, it has almost nothing in common with the ID Buzz Concept we saw hit the stage at the 2017 Detroit Auto Show. Rather, it's powered by a 10 kWh battery pack that sends juice to an electric motor at the rear, which in turn sends 120 horsepower and 173 lb-ft of torque to the wheels. But the Type 20 is less about the drive and more about the experience that it offers.
That's because behind the Type 20's retro sheet metal are features modern enough to make Valley techies blush. It all starts when approaching the van, which senses occupants approaching the vehicle and uses its custom-designed active pneumatic height-adjusting suspension system developed with Porsche to raise the vehicle's ride height.
Coming up to the driver's door, an owner need only look at the 720p wide-angle camera integrated into the drivers-side second window to activate the facial recognition system and gain access to the vehicle. That is, of course, only if they don't decide to interact with the Type 20's conversational digital assistant, which attempts to bring the convenience of voice assistants like Amazon's Alexa to the automotive world.
Push the large VW logo on the front end and the system uses its speakers and three microphones, two inside for the front and rear passenger areas and one external microphone aimed ahead to facilitate a conversation with the user, who can ask questions like "are you ready to go?" and hear information about the state of the battery's charge as a response. By using more sophisticated voice recognition technology and lights that illuminate the LED headlights and the Volkswagen logo to offer feedback, Volkswagen hopes to make voice assistants more capable and interactive in the future.
And while the Looking Glass II holographic display, which doubles as the infotainment system and can generate 3D images on the Type 20's dashboard is pretty cool, one of the van's hallmark features is its heavy reliance on what Volkswagen calls Generative Design. The technology, developed by Autodesk, is essentially the marriage between artificial intelligence and 3D printing and involves engineers plugging the parameters a component must meet into a computer and letting artificial intelligence sort out the best design.
That usually results in cheaper and lighter components that a human hand could never draw up, and it's used to forge the Type 20's wheels, side mirror stems, steering wheel, and even the stand on which the lounge-type seats at the rear rest on. Of course, one of our favorite parts about the Type 20 is the fact that its electric motor still comes mated to a manual transmission, because whoever said the electric era has to sap all the fun out of driving?
The Type 20, like the IECC itself, is dedicated to showing the world that going electric is not enough and that Volkswagen doesn't think the powertrain is the only part of the car that needs to evolve going forward into the future. "The future of the Volkswagen Group will be defined by our success in developing new technology that is designed to meet our customers' needs," said Scott Keogh, President and CEO, Volkswagen Group of America. "As we roll out the next generation of electric and autonomous vehicles, innovation will increasingly define who we are."