VW's self-driving car group will have offices in Silicon Valley and China

The German automaker is playing catchup but is taking big steps toward an autonomous future.

Volkswagen hasn't been as active or vocal about autonomous driving as some of its competitors. The company has focused much of its recent attention on electric vehicle offerings, but that seems to be changing. Today, VW announced the creation of an autonomous driving subsidiary called Volkswagen Autonomy, or VWAT. The new company already has offices in Munich and Wolfsburg, Germany, but will expand to Silicon Valley and China in 2020 and 2021 respectively.

Volkswagen Autonomy's end goal is to bring autonomous driving capabilities to VW's cars, but former Apple engineer Alex Hitzinger calls it "the world's best-funded start-up." Hitzinger, Volkswagen Group's senior vice president for autonomous driving, will be running the subsidiary. He was reportedly working on Apple's electric car initiatives before moving onto Volkswagen.

The company isn't going headfirst into autonomous car production though; its current task is to test the software developed Ford's and VW's jointly-owned Argo AI, which will help vehicles navigate with minimal human intervention. Speaking to The Financial Times, Hitzinger admits that "[Google's] Waymo is still ahead." But that may not be a big deal in the long run. He surmises that automakers "are all far away from a real commercial, viable product."

Furthermore, VWAT isn't focused on passenger vehicles; rather, it's using "special purpose vehicles" like shuttle vans and busses as proofs of concept before moving onto commercially available sedans, hatchbacks, and SUVs. "We plan to start commercializing autonomous driving at a large scale around the middle of the next decade," says Hitzinger in VW's press release.

Last year, VW promised self-parking -- a feature common to many vehicles available to the public -- by 2020. Earlier this year, Volkswagen started testing autonomous sedans on the streets of Hamburg, Germany -- quite a bit later than some other manufacturers. So while VW seems behind the pack when it comes to autonomous vehicles, its investments in software like Argo AI may help the company avoid arriving late to the autonomous driving party.