Innovating the Future at the VW Electronics Research Lab

Located in Silicon Valley, the Volkswagen Group Electronics Research Laboratory (ERL) is the epicenter of the company’s vehicle electronics expertise in North America and its largest research facility outside of Germany. More than 160 ERL engineers, social scientists, researchers, product designers, and psychologists work with teams across the globe to develop technologies for future generations of vehicles.

From autonomous driving to connected mobility, the high-tech lab is charged with creating breakthrough ideas for VW Group brands, including Volkswagen, Audi, Porsche, Bentley, Lamborghini, and Bugatti. VW Newsroom asked the ERL’s executive director, Nikolai Reimer, to describe his role and vision for ERL, what makes it unique, and how he draws top talent to drive innovation.

Question: How have your past roles prepared you for your current role at the ERL?

Reimer: I started my career at Bosch as an engineer focused primarily on navigation software and services. For the past 16 years, I have worked with VW Group in a variety of research and development (R&D) leadership roles overseeing technologies ranging from navigation and infotainment to mobile online services. At every turn, I have been lucky to work with incredible international teams across the globe on highly exciting, cutting-edge technology products. I’ve also been lucky to have had consistently excellent managers and mentors who led by example at each phase of my career.

Question: You recently moved from a position in Wolfsburg to Silicon Valley — what are your first impressions?

Reimer: I miss the rain (kidding). As someone who loves outdoor activities, I’m amazed by the abundance and variety of nature in the Valley. Combined with the great climate of Northern California, it is a truly beautiful place to live. The work culture is also different in many ways. The most obvious difference is the diversity of industries and people at work here in the Silicon Valley. However, as diverse as we are, there is one thing that unites most of the people who live here. It is the drive to build the future, not just to be prepared to face it.

Question: What is your vision for the ERL? What do you see as the biggest opportunity/challenge?

Reimer: Our core purpose is “innovate to drive change.” Innovation is definitely the fun part. Everyone in Silicon Valley is very innovation-driven. Over almost two decades, the ERL has developed a solid process to keep our focus on the right collaborations and the most relevant ideas to drive change that will have a real impact for driver experience and society as a whole. The integration of Google’s satellite map and online voice-enabled destination search, as well as a predictive navigation algorithm, are only a few examples of ERL’s innovations that have been shipped with millions of vehicles around the globe.

Question: How do you define future mobility and transportation?

Reimer: With respect to technology, future mobility is increasingly electrified and automated. We at the ERL envision a future mobility where both usership and ownership of vehicles will coexist. We anticipate that seamless multimodality will combine public and private transportation into one organic service powered by big data and artificial intelligence.

We are hopeful that future mobility will also include digital travel with the help of ubiquitous broadband access to the internet at a low cost and advancement in virtual reality and augmented reality. This means that you won’t have to travel physically but “beam” yourself to the destination. It’s like going to places without necessarily moving.

Question: How will we get there? What role do you see the ERL playing? 

Reimer: The amazing reduction of computing costs, ubiquitous connectivity, and innovations in sensor and battery technology are the main building blocks for the most significant innovations we are working on. At the ERL, we leverage the unique benefits of the Silicon Valley for the Volkswagen Group. Specifically, we cooperate with universities and startups on promising, emerging technologies such as sensors for autonomous driving and battery technology.

Our focus is on connected mobility, autonomous driving and holistic user experience to help improve the driver experience, and drive meaningful change. ERL’s proximity to the local tech giants allows us to be the perfect incubation place for joint innovations as well as a reliable local collaborator for product development.

Question: What connected-car services is VW Group working on for customers?

Reimer: We put our customers and their digital experiences at the center of our innovations. More than ever, it will be the anticipation of customers’ mobility needs and the provision of mobility services which are seamlessly integrated alongside other services like entertainment, education, or shopping. Over-the-air software updates via available connected-car services could also allow automatic upgrades to the vehicle’s technology packages, which can help enhance the enjoyment of one’s car.

Question: Which technologies do you believe are the most promising for the next five years?

Reimer: There are many important trends in technology emerging right now that will likely serve to reshape the industry as a whole — from carmaker to mobility service provider. Some notable ones include artificial intelligence and deep learning, on-demand services, blockchain, augmented and virtual reality, edge and fog computing, intelligent agents, and 3-D printing for manufacturing, just to name a few.

Trends outside of technology will be equally important to the overall story of what’s now being called Industry 4.0.  For instance, the growing middle class, aging population, urbanization, the economic power shift, and climate change will all impact the automotive industry in dramatic ways. 

Question: How do you see autonomous driving and connectivity changing the industry?

Reimer: Generally, it is anticipated that widespread adoption of autonomous driving can greatly reduce accident rates and significantly extend the lifespan of a vehicle. Now think about the impact on the insurance industry. Think about the impact to the spare parts and repair industries. The benefits to the elderly and disabled will be immense. The entire mobility ecosystem is undergoing a disruption not seen since the invention of the car itself.

Smartphone connectivity, on the other hand, was the key enabler for ride-hailing and ride-sharing services. Multi-billion dollar mobility services companies emerged in a matter of a few short years by simply making an app that could easily, conveniently, and cost-effectively feed the mobility needs for millions of people. Nothing was really invented here. It all came from a few people with a clever idea in the form of a business model. I’m convinced there are many more vehicle-related business opportunities to be discovered as more and more cars get connected and automated.

Question: VW has ambitious goals in autonomous driving tech. What role does the ERL play in meeting them?

Reimer: At the ERL, we have a long history in working on autonomous cars. In 2005, we won the U.S. government’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) Grand Challenge with our Touareg. “Its autonomous driving technology was developed in strong cooperation with the Stanford University. The ERL was also the first entity in the Group to start considering how humans would interact both inside and outside of these cars in a safe and trustworthy manner.

In 2015, Audi was the first company to allow non-engineers in the driver’s seat of a car equipped with highway pilot technology to go on a 566-mile test drive from Silicon Valley, California, to CES in Las Vegas, Nevada. Significant parts of this technology have been developed and integrated by the ERL.

Today, we are applying deep learning methods, new sensor and IT technology in a completely new engineering process to build tangible prototypes. Transferred to our engineering teams in Germany, this is a significant contribution to the effort of the Volkswagen Group to continue to be the leading and most innovative global carmaker.

Question: What’s happening at the ERL in the field of advanced battery research?

Reimer: I cannot talk too much about this. In cooperation with start-ups, we have made significant progress that we will be able to demonstrate in the near future.

Question: What is your perspective on EVs and the biggest hurdles?

Reimer: The future of cars is electric. Energy density, safety, and battery life time will remain a big challenge for our industry. But I’m very optimistic, seeing the recent progress in our company and the number of start-ups tackling these issues with promising concepts.

On the other hand, a competitive charging technology and infrastructure providing 100% renewable energy for EVs is a hurdle that can only be solved in strong cooperation between the car industry, grid providers, and public administration/regulation.

Question: With technically talented people in such high demand around Silicon Valley, how do you draw top talent to VW Group? What do you look for when evaluating candidates?

Reimer: Many great talents want to join the ERL team because of the incredible scale of our company, which gives our engineers the potential to immediately work on products that are shipped globally about 10 million times a year. They are also drawn to the power of the Volkswagen Group and the opportunity to work with automotive brands like Audi, Volkswagen and Porsche.

We have seven core teams at work within the ERL in areas ranging from technology and strategy to mobile and cloud intelligence. We look for people with deep expertise in a particular area, combined with excellent collaboration and communications skills.

Question: What’s a fact about the ERL that would surprise people?

Reimer: One interesting fact about the ERL is that it is one of the smallest, yet most diverse business units in a company of more than 600,000 employees. There are people here from every continent on the planet — besides Antarctica, of course. I lived on three different continents before moving to California. In this aspect, Silicon Valley for me feels very much like the right place to be.

As a father of six kids, I have a very strong sense of my personal, but also our corporate, responsibility to use today’s resources and opportunities to provide a more sustainable working and living environment for the generations to come. I am sure that the current way of exponential change will impact my 16-year-old daughter differently than my youngest twins, who have not yet turned two. However, still in the future, people will be on some sort of journey — whether that’s for business or for pleasure; whether that’s short or long; or whether that’s physical or digital/virtual.

We at the VW Group ERL are working hard to make every journey enjoyable.