German carmaker Volkswagen has taken a fresh strike at electric vehicle pioneer Tesla, sharing its plans for an autonomous, software-based “dream car” that it wants to sell by 2026.
First teased by Volkswagen Group CEO Herbert Diess in January, it was thought that the “Trinity Project” might refer to a tri-motor electric car to rival Tesla’s high-performance Plaid drivetrain.
This in itself would not be surprising but it would be a simplistic plan to catch up to the industry-disrupting lead that Tesla has on the entire auto market; one that Volkswagen itself has admitted amounts to a 10-year head start.
Now, Volkswagen has revealed that “Trinity” instead refers to a three-pronged approach that apparently seeks to address the innovative ways Tesla has managed to climb from a little-known start-up to the world’s most valuable carmaker inside a decade.
According to a release issued by the company on Friday (US time), Volkswagen’s new project will look to develop state-of-the-art software technology, automated “intelligent” manufacturing processes and a simplified “supply structure”.
Importantly, it wants to leverage driving data to accelerate autonomous driving, as Tesla is already doing with its FSD beta program (and which it has just opened up to more drivers resulting in “high levels of demand”).
“We are using our economies of scale to make autonomous driving available to many people and to build a learning neural network. In this way, we are creating the conditions for the continuous exchange of data from our vehicle fleet—for example, on the traffic situation, on obstacles or on accidents,” says Volkswagen brand CEO Ralf Brandstätter in a statement.
This will, he says, give people more time in their day, and reduce stress.
“After a long highway trip, you arrive at your destination relaxed. Because you have been driven by a chauffeur to your vacation or to your home after work. “Trinity, therefore, becomes a kind of ‘time machine’ for our customers,” said Brandstätter.
With the 2020 release of Volkswagen’s first ID.3 delayed due to software bugs, the German carmaker has already experienced that rivalling Tesla will take more than just adding an electric drivetrain.
Perhaps that delay has taught the important and fabled lesson that slow and cautious wins the race. Don’t hold your breath.
Its Trinity Project is slated to deliver minimum Level 2 autonomy – that is, steering and navigating under driver supervision, which Tesla cars can already do in certain environments – by 2026 but with the “technical ability” for fully autonomous Level 4 autonomy.
Five years may not sound like long but in the increasingly fast-moving world of technology, it may as well equal the time between the introduction of manual and modern automatic transmissions.
That said, Volkswagen is not waiting until 2026 to introduce autonomous technology. First, it will start testing its autonomous program with VW/Ford partner Argo AI this year. The recipient of this autonomous technology will be the ID.Buzz (an electric version of the Kombi) in a self-driving transport-as-service incarnation.
As well as playing catch-ups on autonomous driving, Volkswagen wants its Wolfburg factory to become a “showcase for state-of-the-art, intelligent and fully networked production processes.”
“We will completely rethink the way we build cars and introduce revolutionary approaches. Digitalization, automation and lightweight construction play an important role here,” says Ralf Brandstätter.
This will, Volkswagen says, result in fewer variants, with standardised hardware that can be activated via the car’s software, which in turn will create an in-use revenue via subscriptions.
One can’t help but think of Tesla’s approach to reducing the complexity and weight of builds via automation of single-piece casts using Gigapresses, the acceleration boost of the Long Range Model 3 or Tesla’s upcoming Full Self-Driving subscription.
Does it really matter if Volkswagen isn’t re-inventing the electric and autonomous wheel?
The answer to that is an emphatic no. In fact, it is completely in line with Tesla’s mission to encourage other carmakers to innovate and move away from fossil fuels, even if it is by flattery.
Now if only they’d do it quickly enough.
Bridie Schmidt is lead reporter for The Driven, sister site of Renew Economy. She specialises in writing about new technology and has been writing about electric vehicles for two years. She has a keen interest in the role that zero emissions transport has to play in sustainability and is co-organiser of the Northern Rivers Electric Vehicle Forum.