VW tries to Budd-e up to US again as car makers seek the spotlight at CES

Software is now as important as engine power in the motoring world these days

Herbert Diess of Volkswagen  unveils the BUDD-e electric and connected car during a keynote address at CES

Herbert Diess of Volkswagen unveils the BUDD-e electric and connected car during a keynote address at CES

 

Remember when the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) was actually about things you could buy, put in your house and play music on? That’s how it all started out, way back in 1967 in New York when CES was actually a spinoff of the (then) much more significant Chicago Music Show. Since its move to Las Vegas in the nineties though, the CES has started to draw more and more car makers and their concepts and now, realistically, it’s a full-blown motor show, a rival to the once-mighty car shows of Europe, the US and Asia.

Why? Simply because tech, like sex, sells. We consumers are, according to the marketing divining rods put forth by the car makers, far more interested in our laptops, smartphones and fitbits these days, so not only will they parade their cars and future plans alongside such techy items, they’ll also start turning those cars, essentially, into mobilised homes for that tech.

Volvo link

Just look at what Volvo is doing at CES this year. The Swedish car maker is further along the road of autonomous driving than many of its rivals, and it’s now looking beyond the mere debut of such robot-controlled cars and is now preparing some of the accessories which we might conceivably buy to use with them. Volvo has developed a system, using Microsofts Apple-Watch-rival, the Band 2, a way of communicating with your car via voice control even when it’s parked some distance away. Yapping into your wrist, Captain Kirk-style, you can instruct the car to prep the interior heating controls, set the sat-nav and basically be ready for you to just hop in and drive. Such technology already exists, of course, via pressing buttons on a smartphone app, but Volvo sees voice control as the way forward. It’s also, of course, a precursor to voice-activated autonomous control, whereby you can tell your car to drop you off at the kerb, go and find a parking space and come back for you when you’re ready. Sort of like saying ‘walkies’ or ‘fetch’ to a dog.

Volvo has also announced a tie-up with fellow Swedish company, the telecommunications supplier Ericsson, and the two will work together to develop reliable, high-speed mobile internet access for future autonomous cars. Volvo has already shown off an idea which uses a massive fold-out tablet screen in the passenger-side of a car’s dashboard, and it expects demand for mobile internet access to vastly increase once autonomous cars become more commonplace. “We are actively working on future solutions to deliver the best user experience in fully autonomous mode,” said Anders Tylman General Manager Volvo Monitoring & Concept Centre at Volvo. “Imagine a highway full of autonomous cars with their occupants sitting back watching their favourite TV shows in high definition. This new way of commuting will demand new technology, and a much broader bandwidth to ensure a smooth and enjoyable experience.”

While Volvo prepares for the expected USD$18-billion sales market for in-car displays (according to IHS Automotive) other car makers are presenting entire new vehicles at the CES.

VW Budd-e

It’s not easy being Volkswagen at the moment. Roiling scandal, the threat of a looming €61-billion lawsuit from the US government and angry customers. Amongst all the mea culpas and hand wringing though, VW is still managing to strike confidently out for the future, and has brought an all-electric, partly-robotic people carrier in Las Vegas as a way to start bringing back customers and kudos.

The Budd-e (the name is a play both on the word Buddy and the old ‘Bulli’ nickname given to the original Type 2 Transporter, Camper and Microbus) sits on what may be VW’s most critical innovation yet - the MEB, or Modularen Elektrisch Baukasten - an all-battery companion to the more familiar, oil-based MQB setup. It’s flexible and scaleable, and will also see service in the short term under the Porsche Mission-E electric saloon and Audi’s Q6 e-Tron electric SUV. Both of those vehicles boast a 500km one-charge range but VW says the Budd-e can do better than that. How does 600km on a single charge sound?

It’s quick to charge too. VW has appropriated the fast-charging kit that Porsche unveiled for the Mission-E and claims that, thus equipped, the Budd-e can recharge to 80 per cent power in just 15mins, which means 400km or so in the time it takes your coffee to cool.

That will be impressive if VW can translate that performance to the real world (and bear in mind, the system needs a 150kW of juice to make that magic happen) but the rest of the Budd-e’s specification is equally tempting. It’s four-wheel-drive, with an electric motor at each end. Total power is a combined 305hp and it deploys 490Nm of torque. Top speed is only just above the 160kmh mark, but acceleration, 0-100kmh in just over 7secs, is pretty brisk for a people carrier.

Inside, VW has given the Budd-e a truly high-tech interior. The dashboard curves around the drivers’ seat in the manner of the bridge of the Enterprise, and it is of course, all-digital. There are actually two large separate displays for instruments and infotainment but VW says that they effectively blend into one. The system incorporates the next-generation of gesture control, and can also respond to colloquial speech. Tell the car that the cabin is too hot and it will crank up the aircon for example, even recognising which of the individual climate control zones from which the request came. Even the steering wheel features touch-screen tap and swipe technology. There are nifty little packaging opportunities too, such as a domestic socket in the boot for powering stereo or cooking equipment and a slide-out drawer in the boot for storing items away from prying eyes.

The Budd-e is also a test case for VW’s robotic self-driving tech, and is likely to launch in 2019 with at least autonomous parking as an option - a system which should make its debut on the next-gen Touareg in 2017.

It’s not retro though. We had been expecting, thanks to the pre-event publicity, that the Budd-e would be something of a nostalgia-fest - tipping a big hat to the style of the original Type 2 - but it’s not, it’s much more modern than that, and in fact bears more than a passing resemblance to some of the tiny Japanese Kei cars, in spite of its hefty 4.5-metre length. Perhaps VW felt that, scandal or no scandal, there was no point in wearing rose tinted specs. Still, the original is being heavily referenced, with Herbert Diess, VW’s new CEO, saying at the car’s unveiling in Las Vegas that “the original Microbus was the embodiment of peace, hope and happiness, an apartment on wheels. The future belongs to cars that make everyone happy. We want to create a new experience of mobility.”

Faraday’s Future

Chinese-backed startup Faraday Future has revealed a dramatic single-seat electric robot car which previews a future lineup of more conventional battery EVs, while General Motors will show off the production version of its new all-electric Bolt, a car designed to have a 300km touring range on one charge, and to be sold at, according to GM, “an affordable price.” That price is likely to be around USD$30,000 once you add in state and government incentives. Presumably, an Opel-badged version will be forthcoming at some point, although Opel’s Frankfurt HQ has bee reticent on confirming anything as yet.

Toyota though is set to somewhat snub the major tech players at CES. The Japanese car giant has confirmed that it has no plans, for now, to fit its cars with either Apple’s CarPlay or Google’s Android Auto car-to-smartphone links. Toyota prefers to come up with its own software for smartphone linking, and will be sharing an updated SmartDeviceLink (SDL) setup with Ford, rather than allowing the Californian software giants into its data networks. Shigeki Terashi, executive vice-president of Toyota, telling the Financial Times that “developing a safer and more secure in-car smartphone connectivity service which better matches individual vehicle features is exactly the value and advantage an automaker can offer customers.” Toyota’s not going to get left behind though, and will announce a USD$1-billion investment in artificial intelligence research for “cars, robotics and scientific discovery.”

BMW will be showing off software of its own too - a new ‘AirTouch’ system which it says is the next-generation of gesture control, allowing you to interact with and control your car by flapping your hands about in specific ways.

Safety tech is on show at the CES too. In-car entertainment giant Harman will be showing a new driver drowsiness monitor which will be cheaper and simpler to install than current systems. Rather than using a battery of sensors which monitor steering and throttle inputs and more, the Harman setup simply uses a small camera which monitors the pupils of a driver’s eyes. When they’re dilated, says Harman, it indicates a “high cognitive load and mental multitasking” - or in other words, you’re paying attention and haven’t nodded off. The system will also selectively switch on and off entertainment and infotainment systems to ensure that the driver isn’t becoming overloaded with information, and can even alert the car’s active safety systems to be extra watchful if a driver seems to be dealing with lots of info at once.