An avid car enthusiast, I crave for a visceral connection to the chassis that I pilot. I’m old school, which means that nothing pleases me more than a stick shift and a grunting engine powered by liquefied dinosaurs. However, we are entering into a whole new automotive world. Electrification and autonomy are undoubtedly where the industry is heading, and Volkswagen—an OEM making strides in this field—invited us to sample some of its latest technologies at its top secret proving grounds at Ehra-Lessien, Germany. This is how it went.
As we pull up to the gates of VW’s expansive testing facility, we are stopped by stern-looking security guards and informed that all of our cameras, cell phones, and dictaphones will be confiscated throughout our visit. A coach-load of journalists snapping away with cameras is the last thing that VW want at this top-secret facility. After negotiating past a tree lined side road, we turn onto the famous 5.4-mile straight, the longest automotive test road in the world. It’s this very stretch of asphalt where Bugattis prove their top speeds in excess of 267 mph. We won’t be setting any speed records today, though. We are here to sample the latest automotive technologies that VW have been working on for “Future Mobility.”
Waiting for us in the facilities are groups of VW research and development engineers and scientists, proudly manning stations that showcase their work. The first is staffed by an enthusiastic engineer keen to tell me all about his idea of an autonomous delivery network for cities.
Autonomous Driving Device: A customized and Last Mile Logistic Service
In a bid to reduce inner city emissions and traffic, is VW proposing the idea of a 6-wheeled “Autonomous Driving Device” (ADD). This last-mile strategy would see the main bulk of goods being delivered to a central warehouse outside the city limits. These ADDs would then make smaller deliveries to specific addresses either in the dead of night or during early hours. Customers would have a special opening added to their shutters or front door with an RF ID chip that would only open the hatch once the ADD has docked to the front of the property.
Human-Machine Interfaces for External Communication
On a daily basis, we are surrounded by Human-Machine Interfaces (HMI), from the screen on your cell phone, to the monitor at your desk in the office. But imagine what it would be like to have such interfaces on your car.
That’s exactly what Volkswagen has done with its HMI demonstration vehicle, which features a screen on each door, one in place of the grille, and one on the tailgate. These relay information to other road users or pedestrians around the car, the main purpose being providing additional information to vulnerable traffic participants such as cyclists and pedestrians—but these can also signal intentions to other vehicles.
In the case of Sedric, VW’s level 5 autonomous car–this all makes sense. The ability to communicate intent to other road users will go a long way towards preventing collisions between them driverless cars, particularly in urban environments and more challenging situations such as four-way stop intersections.
“Sedric,” the Level 5 Autonomous Vehicle
The aforementioned Sedric was the main attraction of the VW tech day. After a full day of talks and poster presentations, it was finally my turn to meet the autonomous vehicle.
Sedric was first introduced at the 2017 Geneva auto show and has since been rapidly developed into a working prototype. It uses conventional sensing hardware such as LIDAR, differential GPS and stereo cameras to take in the surroundings, and processes this to offer fully autonomous urban mobility.
For the ride, I’m chaperoned by a HVAC engineer who talks me through the ride-hailing concept using VW’s cell phone app. Somewhat analogous to Uber and Lyft, you tell Sedric where you are and where you would like to go. It then silently appears at the pickup point, sans driver, and uses the HMI screens on its front and side to tell you that it’s there for you. Before the doors open, I get a cheeky wink from the eyes at the front and a wave animation on the screens that adorn the sliding doors.
Once inside, I sit on the rear bench, where I am met with a tablet screen showing my planned route for this journey. Other information includes pricing and ambient temperature. Casting my gaze forwards, I can see through the front windscreen to the open roads of the test facility. However, with the touch of a button, my guide activates the high resolution OLED transparent display screen. She scrolls through various display options on the translucent front screen, showing me that I can watch a movie, catch up on news, or even see get a view inside Sedric’s mind. The LIDAR, ultrasound, and GPS information is combined into a real-time representation of what Sedric sees and what it plans to do further down the road. A steep increase in the trajectory curve means that it will accelerate, a decrease in the curve will see the opposite.
I can’t help but be pleasantly impressed by the ride. Granted, it was on VW’s perfectly flat and smooth testing ground and lasted less than two minutes, but Sedric still felt like a finished product, from interior trim, even down to the pricing in EUROs on the app and tablet.
Unfortunately, we were unable to sample all of the technologies present, but it was clear that VW has its sights firmly set on an electrified, intelligent, and autonomous future. As for Sedric, not only does it offer a solution to traffic and emissions issues, it actually behaves incredibly well. There were no sharp accelerations, no jerky movements—Sedric drove just as a decent Uber driver would. Is this a car for the die-hard gearhead? No. But for those days when you just need to get from A to B in comfort and ease, Sedric certainly looks like the way to go.