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VW to build self-driving cars 'faster than competition'

Volkswagen reckons fully autonomous fleet would save a million lives per year

Even as it struggles to put limits on the damage by the diesel emissions cheating, Volkswagen is fast changing its strategy for future cars. Over the past months and weeks it’s been stressing electric drive (Audi eTron Quattro and Porshe Mission e) and connectivity (VW Budd-e). And just in the past days the Group board has signed off a huge autonomous driving initiative. It wants to lead the world, and do it soon.

The announcement was made on the eve of the Geneva show. VW Group’s CEO Matthias Müller said: “We will be making a massive effort to promote piloted driving. We will be investing with the aim of bringing these technologies to market faster than the competition.”

The Group’s head of digitalisation Johann Jungwirth said: “In a few years we’ll see vehicles without a steering wheel or pedals. This is not 2030. I’m talking about five years from now. By 2025 it will be commonplace.” 

Jungwirth once ran Mercedes’ US R&D operation. This which included a Silicon Valley lab designing connectivity and user interface, and he was heavily involved with the F015 self-driving Merc. He then went to Apple, likely with a view to contributing to Project Titan, the Apple car. He’s been at VW since November.

Jungwirth is an evangelist for autonomous cars, claiming huge safety benefits. A fully autonomous fleet would potentially do away with more than a million road deaths a year, he says. Autonomous cars would grant independent travel to the disabled and those too young to drive, and the elderly.

He says that because autonomous cars can beetle off after they’ve dropped you and return when you need them, they don’t need parking spaces in city centres. So on-street parking would be converted to traffic lanes, reducing congestion. And car parks could be turned into green parks, or housing. 

I asked him abut this. Surely if the cars drive off to out-of-city parking, that would make more not less traffic? He says computer models support his hypothesis of reduced congestion. This is partly because car sharing could increase – VW would get part of this business, potentially offsetting the revenue loss of selling fewer cars. (For the same reason, General Motors has invested in Lyft.)

Jungworth says a company can succeed in a venture like this if it designs both its own hardware and software. Right there you have a central pillar of Apple’s business philosophy. 

To that end, Matthias Müller announced that VW will restructure its advanced design. The vehicle design and digital systems design will be done together. Three of these “Group Future Centers” are being set up, in Germany, California and China.

In the past, Müller explained, “new technologies were largely integrated into existing vehicles types.” The new studios mean vehicle design, interface, operating logic, new interiors and the integration of the infotainment will all be done by the same teams. Müller called this “a groundbreaking approach in our industry”.

Trouble is, announcing this when you’re Volkswagen is like when you realise your flies are undone and you point upward and shout to the world in general: “Look at that bird up in that tree.” It all came across as an attempt at a distraction from the diesel scandal.

After all the announcement was made by Matthias Müller, the Group CEO, at a pre-Geneva event specifically for the press. But the journalists had been told at the start that if they asked the assembled senior management any questions about Dieselgate, they’d get no answers. Hmmm.

The official reason for the silence is that VW has appointed external investigators to look at the scandal and do a who-knew-what-when report. And that report cannot be prejudged or anticipated. Also VW is still locked in a wrangle with the US authorities (sorry, ‘engaged in constructive talks’) about a recall and other remedies.

So it seemed like this latest announcement’s timing if not its substance was a distraction from the emissions issue.

I asked Müller if the decision on the autonomous driving offensive was a direct result of the emissions crisis. First he reiterated the advantages of autonomous driving Jungwirth had just outlined.

Sure, but why take the decision now? “Because we are ready.” Not because you have this huge crisis and need a new direction? “No, we have been developing this strategy for many months.” 

So why haven’t your competitors taken similar decisions? “I can’t speak for them.”

I mention to Müller that Herbert Diess [head of the VW brand, recruited from BMW] had told me the new modular electric platform was decided on in the aftermath of the diesel crisis. “We were thinking about it before. And the Porsche Mission e was started in mid 2014. The first draft of our strategy for 2025 was done in June 2015 and Diess arrived in July.”

So Müller in his speech said this is the year “we lay the foundation for a new Volkswagen”. And he also said it’s the year when the diesel crisis really plays out. But he didn’t want to say the first was the direct consequence of the second.

German companies want to be seen as fast-moving, but they hate being seen as making hasty decisions.

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