Manufacturers realized long ago that the most effective way to leverage niche talent was to embed a team in the heart of the segment. From surfboard makers to chocolatiers, firms relocated offices to seek specific talents and a better local feel.

Automakers jumped on the bandwagon too. Southern California, long recognized for its fanatical car culture, became a mecca for automakers seeking to get a better taste of the region's motor vehicle passion. In no time, automakers had established Southern California design studios in places like Camarillo (Volvo Monitoring and Concept Center), Newbury Park (BMW DesignworksUSA) and San Diego (Nissan Design America). Cars like the BMW "E46" 3 Series, Nissan 370Z and Volvo's S80 are products of those facilities.

Today, with innovative electronics and forward thinking every bit as important as design, automakers are maneuvering to get a jump on the next big innovation. No place on the planet is more synonymous with high tech than Northern California's Silicon Valley. Located in Belmont, California, is the Volkswagen Group Electronics Research Laboratory. Established in August of 1998 with just three employees, the lab is tasked with "developing innovation and technologies for future generations of cars and to transfer technologies from many industries into the automotive domain." Just think of it as VW's version of Walt Disney Imagineering, but for automotive geeks.

The automaker recently invited us north to take a tour of its facility, touted as the Volkswagen Group's largest research facility outside of Germany. Read on to learn more about what we saw.

Like most operations of this type, the Electronics Research Laboratory (ERL) works on multiple programs simultaneously. In this case, there are five teams broken into specifics: Driver Assistance Systems (DAS), Human Machine Interface (HMI), Infotainment-Platforms, Infotainment-Software and Test Concepts and Validation (TCV). While each has a specific area of expertise, the automaker says all are focusing on the same central goal – to improve the driver experience.

Volkswagen Group Electronics Research LaboratoryVolkswagen Group Electronics Research Laboratory

Our tour through the facility (if anyone is keeping score, the building is LEED Silver Certified with a low-power LED lighting system) presented us an opportunity to check out nearly everything - assuming they hadn't hidden it first. We found the "virtual driving" setup (with a full-size car positioned behind several flat screen displays) very interesting. The huge driving simulator utilizes a series of cameras to observe the driver for tell-tale signs that they're falling asleep or not concentrating. When asked why the car doesn't physically move in reaction to steering inputs, our guide explained that the simulator is just as effective without motion simulation, as movement just caused nausea in test subjects.

In another room we checked out a tooling shop for building prototypes. In addition to the expected assortment of lathes and fabrication tools, VW Group has a stereo lithography machine that's capable of generating accurate three-dimensional resin objects from digital computer plans. The "you-gotta-see-it-to-believe-it" technology prints on liquid resin with an ultraviolet laser to form hard parts (the working linked chain is mind-boggling). Rapid prototyping is an understatement.

Other ERL projects include work on intelligent (self-guided) vehicles, virtual interfaces, multimedia projects and testing long-term reliability. The facility has also partnered with Virginia Tech and Stanford University on co-development programs for the future.

Currently employing more than 100 engineers, social scientists, researchers and product designers, the ERL serves all of the groups' brands (Volkswagen, Audi, Bentley, Bugatti, Lamborghini and eventually Porsche). VW Group isn't the only automaker looking to benefit from Silicon's Valley bright young talent pool, and it's good to see automakers committed to establishing and maintaining local facilities in the heart of the region.