High-Tech Driving VW’s Cars of the Future

Volkswagen’s chief digital officer envisions a new era of mobility in which software will be the soul of the car.
Quelle: dpa
Sedric, Volkwagen's Self-Driving Car.
(Source: dpa)

When Johann Jungwirth talks about cars, he doesn’t talk about things like engine displacement or horsepower. Instead, he focuses on concepts like “ecosystems” and programming interfaces. Mr. Jungwirth, the Chief Digital Officer of Volkswagen, is responsible for preparing the car group for a future when not just the combustion engine has disappeared, but potentially the steering wheel as well. 

Even as Volkswagen is still struggling with the consequences of the diesel exhaust scandal, the company’s top management is pushing ahead with new initiatives for alternative engines and self-driving cars. Mr. Jungwirth, who is leading that effort, grew up in Germany, but he has considerable Silicon Valley experience. Formerly, he headed the Mercedes laboratory in Sunnyvale, California, and later, he moved to Apple. He arrived at Volkswagen in 2015.

Part of the Silicon Valley mentality that Mr. Jungwirth has embraced is a belief that innovation doesn't just mean new features and fun gadgets, but also profound social change. “It’s about a mindset, an attitude,” he recently told Handelsblatt. “It is important that we think more, make bold decisions, and really believe in changing the world and improving the lives of people.”

It is important that we think more, make bold decisions, and really believe in changing the world and improving the lives of people. Johann Jungwirth, VW Chief Digital Officer

Volkswagen, Mr. Jungwirth says, is making the necessary attitude changes to integrate technology into the design of the car from beginning to end. These changes could, for example, dramatically change they way mechanical problems are diagnosed and repaired. “In 2020, I am very confident that we will be able to give feedback in the vehicle via a voice activated interface,” he says. “Or when there’s a bug, we could retrieve the data from the control unit and our developers could make an update within two weeks across the entire fleet. What today would take a half or three-quarters of a year could be reduced to three weeks.”

Mr. Jungwirth says it’s not enough for Volkswagen to simply see itself as an automaker anymore. The car maker is moving toward becoming an integrated hardware, software and services company, he said. 

“Mobility needs have changed over time,” he says. “Today in cities, it is commonplace to book a vehicle to get from A to B. It is important for our long-term success that we have our own mobility services and platforms. There are three key areas of disruption: the change from the internal combustion engine to the electric vehicle, then the change from human drivers to the autonomous vehicle, and the change from ownership to shared use - even if I believe that this trend will not replace the personal vehicle with autonomous vehicles. It is now essential to apply software and services with the same focus that we’ve had on hardware over the past decades.”


04 p17 Volkswagen-01

As Volkswagen integrates more technology into its cars, Mr. Jungwirth says the company will develop some of the advancements on its own, while at the same time partnering with traditional tech companies like IBM. When it comes to the virtual assistant in Volkswagen vehicles, for instance, Mr. Jungwirth envisions needing to integrate services from companies like Amazon, Google and Apple. "The close cooperation between ecosystems is very important for customers,” he said.

Mr. Jungwirth says there are a number of immediate steps that can be taken to simplify the driving experience, even before self-driving cars become commonplace. Intelligent, self-learning virtual assistants, he says, will be able to perform many tasks drivers perform today. "There are about eight steps, such as opening the door, releasing the parking brake, adjusting the mirrors, that people must take before driving begins," he said. “I want to reduce that to zero."

Such advances will have the added bonus of cutting costs by streamlining the design of vehicles and minimizing buttons, switches and mechanical elements, Mr. Jungwirth added.

"In sum," he said, cars will not only potentially be more affordable, but also "simpler and more intuitive."

Christof Kerkmann is an editor for Handelsblatt and writes about the technology sector. To contact the author: [email protected]