The car of the future will be more about software than hardware

Volkswagen aims to simplify, speed up and revolutionise development of new cars

The body of a car is seen at the assembly line for the Volkswagen ID.3 electric car. Photograph: Jens Schlueter/AFP via Getty

The body of a car is seen at the assembly line for the Volkswagen ID.3 electric car. Photograph: Jens Schlueter/AFP via Getty

 

The world might still be convulsed with thoughts of war, pandemic and rising prices for everything, but Volkswagen says it can see the future, and the future is software.

That, one might say, is hardly surprising; ever since the first digital computers appeared in the 1950s and 1960s, ours has increasingly been a world run by software, but VW’s new plans represent a major culture shift for the motor industry.

Right now, Volkswagen uses five main “platforms” to build all of its cars. These platforms are not individual chassis, as it would have been in the old days, but rather a defined set of individual components and hard-point locations around which a new car can be built. It’s how a Golf can be so closely related to a Skoda Superb, or an Audi Q4 to a VW ID.3.

VW wants to cut that number of platforms from five – MQB, MEB, MSB, MLB, and PPE – to just one. That is the ultimate goal of the company’s Project Trinity: a single set of components, called SSP. It’s a single, endlessly adaptable set of dimensions and hard-points that can be used to make any car, from a future VW Polo to an Audi A8 saloon, and even to a next-generation Porsche 911.

“We are focusing on the future of mobility, and eventually autonomous driving, in the long run”

What will differentiate these cars, all made from the same box of bits, will be software, and it is software more than anything that will change the motoring world as we know it.

VW’s head of technical development, Thomas Ulbrich, says: “Today we belong among the globally leading companies in the electrification of mobility. Digitalisation, though, will trigger a much more radical change. It will turn the car into a mobile software device and thus digitalisation will provide a completely different experience with mobility for customers.”

Smartphone with wheels

Some might say that the average car has already become more of a transport system for software than a mechanical device, effectively a smartphone with wheels. Indeed, the qualities of a car’s infotainment system and touchscreen are fast becoming a fundamental characteristic of a car’s desirability, and never mind the inherent issues of driver distraction and light pollution that accompany them.

This effect will multiply with the software that VW is proposing, which of course is expected to bring with it purely robotic driving. “We are focusing on the future of mobility, and eventually autonomous driving, in the long run,” says Ulbrich. “This will, in a very powerful way, change our company and our brand into more of a customer-focused one. As the vehicle becomes more and more connected, so the way in which a car is developed has to become more connected. We want to turn Volkswagen into a tech company.”

Guests engage with ID. Buzz at the ID. Buzz Stop during SXSW on March 13, 2022. Photograph: Roger Kisby/Getty
Guests engage with ID. Buzz at the ID. Buzz Stop during SXSW on March 13, 2022. Photograph: Roger Kisby/Getty

That is an oft-made boast of many car companies, and it’s as likely connected with needing to be seen by tech-keen investors to be heading down that road, as it is any actual promise of conversion. That said, Ulbrich is promising that the way in which VW’s future models will be developed will be much more open. Rather than engineers presenting a finished car into which software can be loaded, engineering and software development will take place side by side.

When it comes to unlocking the potential of autonomous driving, Ulbrich was especially effusive. “Customers might want to use their cars as a moving cinema, and sit back and screen a movie. As soon as autonomous driving becomes fully available, this will be the norm and not the exception. So you will need a screen, and suitable lighting, and an agreeable seating position and cabin temperature. And then you’re looking at reclining seats, and even lie-flat seats so that people can sleep, which means you have to think about how to protect someone in that position in the case of an accident. And so whether it’s a cinema or an office, that means that the development has to start early, because the decisive moment is now, before the car has been fully developed. It’s important to bring all of the experts together at an early point in time in order to check the requirements and dependencies of the different systems.”

Cutting edge

Software still requires bricks and mortar, though, and VW is going to invest €2 billion in the development of both the Project Trinity and the factory in which it will be built. That factory will be in Wolfsburg-Warmenau, not far from VW’s current headquarters, with construction due to start in spring 2023.

“We are setting benchmarks in the automotive industry with Trinity and the new factory and turning Wolfsburg into the global lighthouse for cutting-edge and efficient vehicle production. This reaffirms that the economic transformation of Germany as a centre of industry can be achieved,” said VW chief executive Ralf Brandstätter. The first cars should be rolling off the production line by 2026, and the plan is for all production at the plant to be entirely carbon-neutral.

Fully electric, these cars will have one-charge ranges approaching 700km

What kind of car will the Project Trinity factory turn out? VW has shown only speculative, heavily darkened images that seem to show a large, sleek saloon, roughly the same size as a current Arteon, but the truth is that Trinity won’t be one model, it will be many. The SSP platform is expected to eventually form the basis of more than 14 million individual vehicles in the coming years. Fully electric, these cars will have one-charge ranges approaching 700km, and Ulbrich says the way in which they can be developed will be far faster and more market-responsive than is currently possible. Indeed, a car using SSP and the Project Trinity software can, according to Ulbrich, be designed and brought to market almost a full year sooner than a conventional model, chopping development times from about 50 months to 40 months. Much of that speed with come from the simpler mechanical make-up of Trinity. “If you really used all the opportunities of the current platforms, there are about 10 million different configurations. For Trinity, there will be around 140. We can do away with quite a large number of hardware variants,” says Ulbrich.

Industrial relations

Consolidation won’t mean sameness, though. Ulbrich claims that although the hardware will be standardised, “the software will mean you will be able to individualise each model. “This way, standardisation and individualisation are no longer a contradiction.”

“We need to make sure that we can offer to help our employees move into the future”

VW admits that it will have to work hard to ensure that this change from hardware to software doesn’t leave its workforce out in the cold. It’s an oft-expressed concern that simpler, less labour-intensive electric cars could trigger significant lay-offs in car factories around the world, and the powerful German unions are breathing down VW’s neck on this subject.

“We need to make sure that we can offer to help our employees move into the future, through training and requalification, and we need to make sure that we do so in good time, so that it’s not a process of waiting until the last internal combustion engine has been made, and then doing it,” says Ulbrich. “We have to provide people with the opportunity to change.”

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