Volkswagen designers are creating digitally

October, 2020.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, Volkswagen designers’ have been working even more frequently in the form of virtual reality. Many business trips are no longer necessary. This makes designing new cars not only more digital but also more climate friendly.

Until a few months ago, Marco Pavone was a frequent flyer. Spain, China, USA – hardly a month in which the Head of Exterior Design at the Volkswagen brand was not on the road. “For us it was clear that important decisions are best discussed face-to-face. Design thrives on the fact that you look at shapes from the same perspective and can demonstrate changes,” says Pavone. Then came Corona – and business trips were taboo. “At first it was a shock,” Pavone confesses. But the shock has passed. In the meantime, the designers have learned to replace a large proportion of travel with online meetings. Existing technology has been improved. It is one of many examples that show how Volkswagen is becoming a more digital and sustainable company during the pandemic.

Pavone describes one of his recent meetings as follows: Instead of going to the airport, he goes to the Wolfsburg Design Center in the morning. Only a few colleagues await him in the large presentation hall – and an 18-meter LED wall. Participants from China and Brazil, who would otherwise have travelled to the meeting, are connected. Pavone presents the virtual model of a new vehicle. He explains what his team has changed since the last meeting – and why. He can even show details in razor-sharp clarity on the video wall – almost like on a real car. “We know we can trust the technology,” says Pavone.

50 tons of CO2 saved

The digital formats not only enable collaboration during corona times – they are also beneficial to the environment. Take Marco Pavone, for example: “Last year, I took 13 business trips by plane,” he reports. Four times to China, once the USA, twice to Brazil and six times to Barcelona. This brought the total number of flight kilometers to around 133,000, with estimated CO2 emissions of 50 tons. Since the outbreak of the pandemic, he has not taken a single business flight. It is true that online conferences lead to electricity consumption and thus also to CO2 emissions. Nevertheless, the ecological balance sheet is much better than for meetings on other continents.

The designers were helped by the fact that they had already digitized many work steps before the pandemic. One example is the use of data glasses, which designers, engineers and other development partners use to work together in virtual reality. The demand for physical vehicle clay models had also fallen significantly even before Corona. The advantage: faster decisions and savings in the millions.

Now the designers are going one step further: the aim is to design a show car for a motor show next year for the first time using exclusively virtual means. Without an intermediate step via a clay model, the engineers will build the car directly from digital designs. “The 3D world almost feels like reality. We would never have thought this possible in the past,” says Pavone.

Daily life becomes more flexible

For many employees, the possibilities for digital collaboration are an asset. Like many departments, designers currently work predominantly from home and only meet at the workplace for special reasons. Pavone: “Some colleagues are now bringing their children to school and then sit down at the computer. I have no problem with that. Creative ideas don’t come at the push of a button anyway.”

The designers want to use the expanded digital possibilities even after the pandemic. Simply going back is not an issue – the savings in time, costs and climate-damaging emissions are too great. “I assume we will have a mixture of many virtual meetings and some face-to-face encounters,” says Pavone. He is already looking forward to the physical meetings. “After all, we are people.”

Would it be possible in the long term to do without such encounters altogether? Pavone shakes his head. He says: “As good as the digital possibilities are – you can still overlook mistakes. Perfect design can only be created when we see the model outside in sunlight, in the real world. After all, the car will later be driving on real roads – and not on the screen.”