Unlike its red-hot Audi brand, mainstream Volkswagen sales have been afflicted by an assortment of maladies. An aging lineup, a reputation for mechanical gremlins and a lack of a competitive crossover vehicle have all hurt. In the US, the brand's cars claim only two percent of the overall market.
As we reported earlier today, Volkswagen took steps this week to upgrade some broader aspects of its weaknesses here. At its Electronics Research Laboratory in Silicon Valley, the company announced it would make several advanced safety features and connectivity options available throughout the bulk of its lineup. Features that have long been available on its premium Audi cars will spread to its more economical offerings.
In one big way, they will overstep their premium siblings. Volkswagen said Apple CarPlay, Android Auto (pictured below) and MirrorLink will all be available on a revamped infotainment system. Cars equipped with the new Car-Net-branded systems are arriving in showrooms now. Only last month, Hyundai became the first to offer CarPlay, debuting the smartphone-projection system in its 2015 Sonata. Chevy, Honda, and now Volkswagen, have quickly followed suit.
On the safety-minded side, features like adaptive cruise control, forward collision warning, autonomous emergency braking, park steering assist and automatic post-collision braking will be optional equipment on most of the brand's 2016 model-year cars. Previously, the features had only been available on the Touareg SUV. They're now available on most Golf variants, the CC, Jetta, Sportwagen and some Beetles. Though the Passat sedan is one of the company's most competitive cars, it was curiously absent from the announcements, though an update could come later this year.
While the advanced safety equipment is a boon for motorists increasingly interested in the technology, Volkswagen also added some basic safety tech that's long been available in mainstream competitors' cars, adding features like blind-spot monitoring and lane-departure warning.
One of the big differences consumers might note is the cost of the driver-assistance systems. While many other automakers can charge several thousand dollars for the optional systems, Volkswagen's prices range from $950 to $1,450 on higher trim levels. With comparatively affordable optional prices on mass-market cars, more drivers will be able to pay for safety equipment that protects them in a crash.
Spreading such equipment into the nation's fleet is a top priority of Mark Rosekind, administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Last week, he urged automakers to speed the introduction of such features. "Safety isn't a competitive advantage," he said. "You never see the star rating on the side of an airliner when you board."
Three of the new Volkswagen features introduce some early autonomous technology into its cars. A forward collision warning gives drivers audible and visual warnings if the car is in danger of crashing into an object ahead, and if the driver doesn't react fast enough, autonomous braking kicks in, and either can mitigate or avoid an accident. Depending on the scenario and weather conditions, says Volkswagen's Andrew Cunningham, a senior engineer of vehicle safety, the car can slow a car down by 20 to 30 kilometers per hour.
That's important, because the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety has begun testing front-crash mitigation and avoidance systems, and has made it a part of its crash-test rankings. In order for cars to earn the nonprofit organization's coveted Top Safety Pick+ rating, a car must earn an advanced or superior front-crash prevention score. The availability of forward collision warning is also factored in, and the IIHS rankings often help car buyers evaluate the effectiveness of dozens of these systems on the market.
VW's parking steer assist automatically identifies parking spots along streets, and when properly activated, can parallel park with a driver only needing to press the accelerator pedal and brake once a gear is selected. Above 35 miles per hour, a lane-assist feature helps nudge drivers who drift from their lane, and automatic post-collision-braking helps dazed drivers come to a safe stop following an accident.
Like any of the other semi-autonomous features, lane-assist can be overridden by driver inputs. "It will release if the driver presses the accelerator," Cunningham said. "We want the driver to still be the captain of the ship."
These features are all available in showrooms now, but motorists may need to wait a few years for one of the more intriguing new technologies currently under development in the VW lab. Gesture Control, a 3D-camera-based sensor that monitors drivers' hand movements and allows them to do things like roll down the window or open the sunroof without actually touching a button, is still a few years away from landing on a production car. A prototype debuted earlier this year at CES.
"It's some years," said Thomas Ryll, the general manager of testing and validation at the lab. "You want to make sure you can distinguish between if you're just moving your hand or intending for an action. ... But for us, it is a logical evolution of the touchscreen."