Volkswagen Transforms Its Hippie Microbus Into a Souped-Up Internet-of-Things Van

Could be on the road by 2020

While Volkswagen is still reeling from the scandal that ensued from its decision to cheat emissions tests by installing secret devices in 11 million cars, the German automaker is showing off a big idea at this week's CES tech conference that may stir up nostalgia for fans.

During an opening keynote in Las Vegas on Tuesday, VW chairman Herbert Diess unveiled a concept car called Budd-e that puts a new spin on the brand's iconic 1960s microbus. But unlike the old model, the new version is electric and built with a digital platform that puts the car at the center of the Internet of Things.

"The microbus was pretty much the embodiment of peace, love and happiness—and it was an apartment on wheels more than 60 years ago," Diess said. "We will continue in this vein, but it will be a lot more high-tech than the '60s [version]."

One of the biggest draws of the car is a smart dashboard that connects the vehicle and all of a consumer's other devices. For example, drivers can see which groceries they have back at home in their smart refrigerator or hear the doorbell ring while on the road. And if a package arrives while you're away, the delivery person can leave it in the van's built-in storage box. 

VW's souped-up vehicle doesn't have door handles and instead opens with gestures and voice commands. And to create more floor space, the battery is flat and built into the floor. While many concept cars are never mass produced, Diess said the bus could be made by 2020.

For the long term, Volkswagen is betting on self-driving cars, which is a major theme at this year's tech conference. Tuesday, VW signed a deal with a company called Mobileye, which makes maps for autonomous cars. The brand also acquired digital mapping company Here in August, which is aimed at improving the accuracy of self-driving cars using sensors that can change the car's pathway in real time.

"The new world will be defined by automated driving," Diess said. "In the future, it will be an everyday feature of our life, and it will completely change mobility, making it much safer and more convenient."