Volkswagen takes advantage of the San Francisco Bay Area's high-tech expertise by situating its Electronics Research Laboratory (ERL) in Palo Alto. This is the group that helped the Stanford team build Stanley, the winner of last year's DARPA Grand Challenge. I got to visit ERL this week and look at some of the technologies Volkswagen is developing.
ERL keeps a Passat in its garage for use as a project car. The Passat has a 9-inch touch-screen LCD in the center stack, and its software interface is named Gypsy. The interface starts off with six menu items displayed as big, easy-to-tap buttons. Hit one, such as Entertainment, and the other buttons fly off the screen, their place being taken by more buttons for choosing audio, video, or whatever other entertainment source might be available. The interface looked very easy to use and fluid to me. It essentially involves drilling down through menus and submenus, yet the button size and placement make it very accessible. But Gypsy is more than just an interface, as it includes the idea of being updatable, with new applications referred to as widgets. A widget could be a new game for the kids in the backseat or something more useful, such as a gas price monitor. Volkswagen's researchers figure a driver could pull into a local VW dealer or other outlet and purchase more widgets whenever something compelling became available. The widgets would be loaded onto the system through a wireless connection.
Google Earth navigation
To make GPS navigation more usable, VW worked with Google to incorporate Google Earth. Instead of looking at a flat, 2D map, the driver sees a 3D representation of the world with a photorealistic overlay. At the ERL demo I watched, an engineer entered a destination, and the point of view--which uses the entire globe as its default--suddenly started to fly in, getting closer and closer to the surface until streets and terrain were visible. In one part of the demo, I was shown the Grand Canyon, which has a complete photo overlay. The demo also included a destination in Manhattan, which showed how useful this system could be; having individual buildings represented on the map makes it easier for the driver to get oriented. ERL also worked an Nvidia graphical chipset into the system to make the maps look really good. On the business side, Google could use the system to sell sponsored positions in a point-of-interest search. For example, if a driver searched for hotels nearby, the system could highlight or offer more information for hotels that paid for position. The engineers at ERL anticipate that other Internet companies with mapping services would probably want to partner with other car companies.
In the final demo I saw at ERL, we drove around in two cars that were sharing data. The car I was in displayed speed, braking, and steering angle for a second car following us. A lot of research into this type of data sharing is being pushed by the Department of Transportation, the idea being that it could be used to prevent accidents and convey traffic information. For example, if traffic is stopped on the other side of a blind curve, approaching cars would be warned and prevented from slamming into the stopped cars. General traffic congestion information could also be communicated to central servers so that drivers could check their routes and determine if they should take detours. The FCC has reserved a wireless band for car-to-car communication called Dedicated Short Range Communications. It's a fairly simple idea and easily implemented with modern technology, but its impact could be revolutionary.