VW has opened the doors to its top-secret test facility at Ehra-Leissen and given the press the opportunity to take a peek inside. ‘Innovations at Volkswagen 2014’ was our first chance to get up close and personal with some new technologies that are expected to reach production in the next few years. From heat-reflecting coatings keeping the cabin cool in the sun to self-learning sat-nav that knows where you’re going before you tell it and 10-speed DSG transmissions, future VW buyers have plenty to look forward to. And what premieres on a VW is bound to trickle down to every Audi, Seat, Skoda across the VW empire... Here are some of the highlights.
1) 10-speed DSG
VW’s engineers have managed to cram a 10-speed DSG transmission into the space currently occupied by a seven-speed DSG gearbox. This is good news for both performance and economy, since more closely spaced, lower ratios make for faster acceleration while the extra gears mean lower engine speeds at a cruise. How low? Try 50mph per 1000rpm – brilliant for long-distance economy, though you might chug up the hillier sections of the M6 motorway. Better yet, there’s only a 5kg weight penalty in spite of the new dual-clutch auto’s increased complexity.
2) Self-learning sat-nav
Future VW satellite-navigation systems will learn your driving habits – including where you regularly drive, such as your work and home addresses. It will then automatically display suggested routes and estimated driving times, taking into account traffic conditions - without any need for you to enter those addresses before you start to drive. It’s a little bit like Google Now for the car, except it will even learn to anticipate the days you divert to drop the kids off at school and the evenings you tend to stop at the gym on the way home. And because this data never leaves the car, there shouldn’t be any privacy concerns, claims VW. Though we're sure that privacy campaigners and Google haters may have something to say about this.
3) ‘Sandwich’ sheet steel
Instead of conventional steel panels, future Volkswagens may feature a ‘sandwich’ of two thin sheets of steel either side of a polymer core. This technology is about 30% lighter than conventional steel, can be produced in the same factories and is actually more recyclable, so greener when it comes to total life, according to Wolfsburg boffins. It’s no good for structural elements, but when it comes to the bonnet of a VW Polo, the sandwich is 2kg lighter than a conventional equivalent. Which is why it’s used for the bonnet of the special edition Polo R WRC above. (Carbonfibre is 70% lighter than steel, but much more expensive.)
4) Media Control – live services and improved sat-nav
In addition to self-learning sat-nav, VW is working to include a greater number of live services – including the ability to check fuel prices at nearby petrol stations and look up the number of parking spaces in nearby car parks in real time. Going further than this, however, you will soon be able to search for an address or point of interest on your smartphone or tablet using the in-car wi-fi, then send that to the car’s navigation system as a new destination using a new Media Control app. But that’s not all VW’s next in-car networks will be able to do. Welcome to the dawn of the internet of things. It's becoming a very connected world out there...
5) Media Control – universal in-car entertainment
The Media Control system can also talk to every ‘smart’ device in the car with the app installed, and list them all as media sources. You will then be able to select media – whether that be music or video – on any of those devices via the car’s touchscreen, and play or display it on any of them, either all together or separately, regardless of where that media is stored. The sound can be sent to the tablet or phone, or played through the car’s speakers, all in perfect synchronisation. Plus you can collaboratively create music playlists on the fly. Those in control up front can even lock the other devices so that only what they select can be viewed – perfect for controlling what the kids are up to in the back while still keeping them amused. A clever seat-back tablet mount can move from a viewing mode to a lower working mode, depending on what’s required. That's very nifty indeed.
6) Think Blue to save fuel.
Volkswagen wants to teach you how to drive more efficiently, using on-board and in-app ‘Think Blue Trainer’ software that sets challenges and gives rewards as you drive. You can’t yet upload your high scores to Facebook, but don’t bank against this being possible soon. Instant feedback helps save fuel from the first trip.
7) User accounts for cars
You’re probably familiar with personalised car keys, which remember your preferred settings for the seat and the steering wheel. But what happens if you pick up your other-half’s car key by mistake? VW wants to solve this problem by moving your user profile out of the key and into a user account built into the car, starting in 2015. And it won’t just be the seats that are automatically adjusted; some 150 parameters are customisable in the test vehicle. Settings include preferred driving modes, radio stations, display choices – almost everything you can otherwise adjust – and to save you having to spend a couple hours sitting there working it all out, you can do much of the adjustment remotely via an app in your free time. Looking further ahead, VW hopes to make it possible to transfer profiles between vehicles, so you’ll feel right at home if you have to borrow or buy another car.
8) Easy Open, Easy Close
If you’ve got your hands full, opening the boot can be a bit of a pain. A current solution is a sensor that detects a kicking motion at the back of the car, but this is inelegant and tricky to manage if you’re precariously balanced. So how about a car that projects a footprint onto the floor, which you just have to stand on instead? Simple, but effective. A lot like the proposed new Easy Close system, that once activated via a button on the boot lid automatically closes and locks the car after you’ve taken the same awkward load back out and walked away. Cunningly, both systems only work if you’re carrying the key.
9) The evolution of stop-start
Coming on the new 2015 Passat is what VW is calling stop-start 2.0 – a system that switches the engine off slightly before the car reaches a standstill (around 4mph), saving an additional 1-2g/km CO2 without causing occupants any discomfort. But this is only an interim measure. Soon VW is planning to introduce a ‘mild hybrid’ system that can switch off the engine whenever you’re coasting, even at motorway speeds. Utilising a belt-driven re-starting system in addition to the conventional unit, and 48v electrics to keep the power-steering and brakes fully functional whenever the engine is snoozing, this could bring a substantial 5-10% fuel saving, says VW. That it’s also much smoother, quieter and faster than current technology is the icing on the cake.
10) Making music on the move
Finally, in what would appear to be a rather light-hearted and indulgent waste of development budget, VW is also working on an in-car app that generates music based on the way you drive. Kind of like your own personal movie score, only in a tiny, repetitive electronic format. Features includes adding extra sounds when you accelerate or brake (though not each time, as that would encourage irresponsible driving) and even when you switch on the indicators. There’s also a ‘solo’ mode utilising the proximity sensor on Volkswagen’s current infotainment touchscreens. Bizarre. What’s worse, you can then share this improvised masterpiece with the world via existing online music services. Gives a new meaning to mobile disco, but in this instance it’s thanks, but no thanks, VW.