Volkswagen’s roots in Silicon Valley sprout the tech-driven future of transportation

For more than two decades, Volkswagen Group of America has been researching the future of transportation in Silicon Valley. Volkswagen launched what’s formerly known as the Electronics Research Laboratory to tap into Silicon Valley’s innovation and spirit, and made it among the first automotive manufacturers to establish a cross-functional team in the region.

Starting with three employees in 1998, the unit now known as the Innovation and Engineering Center California (IECC) has contributed dozens of innovations to Volkswagen vehicles all around the globe and more than 250 patent applications.

Today, the IECC is Volkswagen’s major West Coast innovation hub and has four main goals: research innovations in mobility, apply artificial intelligence and digital solutions to business challenges, develop key technology for autonomous systems, and find ways to improve sustainability through new materials and decarbonization.

“We’re proud of the technology and engineering accomplishments our Silicon Valley team continues to lead and build for Volkswagen,” said Dr. Wolfgang Demmelbauer-Ebner, executive vice president and chief engineering officer at Volkswagen Group of America. “For more than 20 years, the IECC has been a key driver behind our efforts to combine our automotive expertise and creative spirit, allowing us to continuously deliver first-to-market innovations and a leading user experience for our customers across the U.S. and around the globe.”

Home to some 200 scientists, engineers, designers and other specialists, the IECC has two branches: Innovation Center California (ICC) and Engineering Center California (ECC). The ICC plays a key role in building technology for Volkswagen worldwide, working with other innovation centers from Volkswagen Group in Germany and Asia, drawing on connections with startups, U.S. universities and research labs to identify new technologies.

“Our goal is to drive the transformation of Volkswagen into a tech-driven car company,” said Marcus Brand, vice president at the ICC. “Being in Silicon Valley provides us with a huge opportunity to drive innovations into millions of vehicles.”

To do so requires solving key questions about how technology and innovation can address some of the toughest challenges in the automotive business. For example, the teams in Belmont have been researching how artificial intelligence could help the advancement of autonomous driving, improve battery health or to create new materials for even more sustainable mobility products.

Experts at ICC also have developed virtual and augmented reality tools that are now being used by Volkswagen designers and factory engineers. Their research work will also help power the massive data processing and machine learning required to make autonomous vehicles a reality.

“Our job is to look over the horizon and ask what technologies emerging in America – and, ultimately, globally – do we need to embrace and apply for Volkswagen in a transportation context,” said Brand. “We then strengthen our technical competencies here.”

The ECC’s role continues to grow as well. Its experts help turn innovations into useable products for U.S. and eventually global customers, from driver’s assistance features that use machine vision to apps that help connect owners to their vehicle’s functions. The work will touch virtually every vehicle the Volkswagen Group of America sells in the North American Region, including EVs like the new Volkswagen ID.4 SUV and future EV models across the portfolio.

“In Belmont, we have always been close to the heartbeat of American customers. And we can bring this to the global level. Our drive to build the digitalization of the vehicles and all their related services are the biggest change we’ve ever been a part of,” said Jochen Jencquel, vice president at ECC. “We’re collaborating with thousands of Volkswagen developers globally to bring Volkswagen’s new vision of software inside the vehicle to life.”

For example, the expert teams in Belmont are designing next-generation interior concepts for autonomous-capable electric vehicles at Volkswagen, taking into consideration how the interior controls and human-machine interface will need to change when a vehicle has more self-driving functions.

Chuhee Lee, vice president of technology and strategy at the IECC, was one of the first employees brought on. Still there today, Lee says the IECC with its huge scope of both branches, offers a unique career opportunity for developers, researchers and others.

“The scale of what we can do at Volkswagen, especially at Volkswagen Group with nearly 10 million vehicles sold around the world in a single year, is enormous,” said Lee. “Everybody at the IECC wants to contribute and make a real-world impact, and we can offer that.”