Sedric previews VW Group automated vehicle and artificial intelligence focus
At the 2017 Geneva Motor Show in early March, the Volkswagen Group took the wraps off the first concept car to be developed by the parent company meant to be a cross-brand ideas platform. It was engineered from scratch for autonomous driving and is part of a broader VW Group integrated concept for mobility of the future.
The Sedric, short for self-driving car, highlights the major importance of fully automated driving in the company’s future strategy. The car’s innovative control system enables autonomous driving at the touch of a button, the self-driving automobile taking its passengers safely to their destination.
Smart mobility solutions at VW, dubbed the new Mobility Solutions Divisions, are being developed as would another brand in the Group. The initiative is part of the biggest process of change in the history of the company called “Together – Strategy 2025,” which paves the way for the Group to become one of the leading global providers of sustainable mobility.
“We have made autonomous driving and artificial intelligence central building blocks of our Strategy 2025,” said Matthias Müller, CEO of the Volkswagen Group, in his keynote during the Geneva show’s VW Group Media Night. “Over the next years, we will be investing several billion euros in these core technologies. We are recruiting top specialists and pooling our strengths in the Group.”
Autonomous vehicle technology is not new to the VW Group. In 2005, a Volkswagen Touareg called Stanley won the DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) Grand Challenge for robotically controlled cars in the Nevada desert. In 2010, an auto-piloted Audi TTS scaled Pikes Peak in Colorado. In 2014, an Audi RS7 with no human driver, raced round the Hockenheim Grand Prix circuit at 240 km/h (149 mph).
Under the new strategy, powertrain electrification also plays a large role. “We will be launching over 30 additional purely battery-powered electric vehicles by 2025,” said Müller.
“We are building up a new business field for mobility solutions,” he added. “And we are making battery technology, autonomous driving, and artificial intelligence new core competencies at Volkswagen. We are realigning the Group to make it ready for this big transformation—in our structures, with new partnerships, and in our mindset.”
The VW Group is developing solutions tailored for the new digital mobility world at 37 competence centers and digital labs around the world, in far-flung locations from San Francisco to Berlin and Beijing. Those solutions will build upon the company’s budding new mobility portfolio that includes its recently set up MOIA mobility-on-demand company and Rio cloud-based operating system for commercial vehicles. The company has also partnered with tech companies such as Mobileye, Here, und nVIDIA to help advance mobility technologies of the future.
VW says that a fully automated mobility concept, similar to Sedric and based on intensively used vehicles, will take up less space, consume less energy, and be safer and more sustainable. Sedric is designed to also offer mobility to more people: children, retirees, people with physical disabilities, city dwellers that don’t own a car or have a driving license, and visitors in a new city that want to get from A to B. It can drive children to school, then take their parents to work, look independently for a parking space, collect ordered shopping items, and pick up visitors and children from sporting events—all by vehicle pushbutton, voice control, or smartphone app.
Sedric is the first VW concept car to be created for fully autonomous SAE Level 5 driving—with no driver required. It was conceived, developed, and built at the Volkswagen Group Future Center in Potsdam, in collaboration with Group Research in Wolfsburg. Sedric’s “creators” present at the Geneva launch were Johann Jungwirth, Volkswagen Group’s Chief Digital Officer; Ulrich Eichhorn, Head of Research & Development; and Michael Mauer, Head of Group Design.
The technical backbone of the Sedric is VW’s new MEB modular electric drive kit, the foundation for future VW all-electric cars. Electric propulsion enabled a people-friendly engineered structure. The flat battery unit is installed between the axles, and a compact electric motor is fitted between the wheels. The classic proportions of present-day vehicles are gone, the monolithic base frame doing away with common elements such as the hood or shoulder line. The 2+2 interior was designed to maximize interior space on a minimal footprint, with a wheelbase almost identical with VW’s up! Air-conditioning and self-driving system control are positioned in the compact overhangs, front and rear.
The technological heart that makes all this possible is the self-driving system based on artificial intelligence, with 360-degree LIDAR lasers, radar systems, laser sensors, numerous cameras, high-end ultrasound sensor technology, and highly-accurate digital maps that are updated in real time with the help of crowd data. The data are transmitted to a very powerful compact control unit that VW claims that, until a few years ago, supercomputers the size of a sports hall would have been needed to provide such processing power.
Passengers can talk to Sedric just like a personal assistant about the destination, how to get there, the driving time, the current traffic situation, and even a short break on the way. “You choose whether Sedric takes you to your destination by the shortest, fastest, or most scenic route,” said Müller. “During the ride you can spend your time just as you like: working, making calls, talking to the other passengers or just relaxing. Sedric drops you off at your destination, and then drives away to automatically find a parking space or to serve the next passenger.”
The mobility experience revolves around a control element consisting of a pushbutton and a ring that indicates Sedric’s arrival time with colored signals and vibrations–the latter for persons with impaired vision. User access is by a two-part door swing that opens wide and tall, extending up into the roof, to make it easy for passengers to get in even with luggage.
Since Sedric does not require a driver, steering wheel and pedals are not needed and the interior is designed to be “a comfortable lounge on wheels.” The 2+2 person design makes optimum use of floor area, with the two rear seats acting as a comfortable couch. The vehicle’s novel HVAC design has air-purifying plants positioned in front of the rear window that enhance the effect of generously dimensioned bamboo charcoal air filters. The windshield is comprised of a large, transparent, high-resolution OLED screen with augmented reality and serves as a communication and entertainment center.
Sedric is a special project, being the first concept car from the Volkswagen Group. However, Muller stressed that “I would like to make it clear that the Group will not be building its own cars in the future. That is something our brands excel in. But this study stands for a new self-image: the Volkswagen Group is a catalyst and an incubator for ideas. It combines the creativity, competence, and knowledge of our Group family. And subsequently shares this with the brands. That way, we can deliver innovations to our customers even faster in the future.”
Elements and functions from the concept car will reappear in vehicles from the Group brands in the coming years. In the more near-term, the future of VW Group self-driving cars is taking the next step, with production this year of the new high-tech Audi A8. In jams, or on the motorway, drivers of that car can take their hands off the wheel at speeds of up to 60 km/h (37 mph). The A8 takes over, takes the strain and provides support.”
Muller says that the first fully automated vehicles will be on the road a few years from now: “Initially, we will see them on longer journeys and in clearly defined environments such as industrial sites or connected parking lots. Looking a bit further ahead, they will also be seen downtown. Real self-driving cars with no steering wheel or pedals will become a common sight. Thanks to their e-drives, these will be zero-emission vehicles offering customers and operators flexibility and economic efficiency: smart mobility in the smart city.”
However, there are obstacles to be overcome in pursuit of this vision—and not just technological hurdles, but more challenging legal and political ones. He continued: “How do we make sure that our customers’ data is secure and protected at all times? How do we shape the transition phase when autonomous vehicles and vehicles with a human driver meet? And finally, we need to find answers to difficult ethical questions, because algorithms do not have a moral compass. I am convinced that all these questions can be solved! We accept our responsibility, and we will be part of the solution.”