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ROAD & TRAVEL Earth Tones: Volkswagen Goes Back to the Future
by Jessica Howell

One 1964 VW Microbus Gets a New Lease on Life as
Volkswagen's new "hidden technology" concept, Chameleon

At first glance, it looks just like any other vintage Volkswagen bus you might see rumbling down the road, Hawaiian lei dangling from the rearview mirror, dancing hula girl propped on the dash, surfboard stoically mounted atop the roof. But upon closer inspection, this VW Deluxe Microbus reveals much more than anticipated; in fact, it’s steeped in futuristic technology that’s likely to put your car to shame.

Volkswagen Concept: The Chameleon

One hundred percent electrically-powered, the concept is dubbed the "Chameleon” and features LED lighting technology, roof-mounted solar panels, imbedded unlocking touch pads and a digital bumper sticker that changes phrases every few seconds among its updates. Not bad upgrading for a vehicle that VW researches snagged on eBay.

An original 1964 model, the "Chameleon" is hitting the tour circuit, touted by VW as a show car for cutting edge advancements.

On a particularly gloomy Detroit day, I find myself sitting among a group of journalists in Volkswagen’s Auburn Hills, Michigan Headquarters. Despite overcast skies, we’re in high spirits. The "Chameleon" brightens up the room considerably; its exterior alone soliciting smiles reminiscent of a bygone era.

Twenty-one windows allow maximum visibility in the Microbus cabin, while a soft-top canvas roof folds back accordion style to let in fresh air and provide comfy views of clear night sky stars while lounging in the spacious van with a (lucky) date. And if that’s not romantic enough for you, flip on dash board mood lighting for a splash of red illumination, or flick a switch to raise the Sony flat screen that’s tucked behind the front seat.

If a long, moonlit walk leads you astray, don’t worry about stowing the keys. Simply lock up and use the Palm/Vein Scanner, built into the gas cap, to identify you and automatically unlock the doors once you return. Programmable for multiple users, the system scans three layers of your hand with infrared rays, ID-ing you by the depth of your unique “vein print” and allowing either door unlock or vehicle start-up based on set security levels.

When it’s time to head home, the "Chameleon" won’t blind passerbies on the road. Automotive lighting specialist, Osram, has equipped the vehicle with the latest in LED technology – headlights that shine bright white light (think pure blue tint) without the shield-your-eyes glare that often accompanies halogen lighting.

“There’s a quiet revolution going on in lighting,” explains Osram’s Steve Sidwell. “A revolution that’s replacing incandescent bulbs with LED lighting; capturing the energy… and producing light that’s whiter than sunlight… without blinding the people following you.”

Close up of LED Lighting

“It’s a hidden technology theme,” says Vickie Chiang of VW’s Electronics Research Lab in Palto Alto, California as she dissects the "Chameleon" for us. She’s walking around the bus, pointing out the cool touches that we never would have found otherwise.

When I ask Chiang which update she’d most like in her current car, she winces at the thought of choosing just one.

“The switchable glass rear window,” she finally decides, citing its opaque-to-transparent and back again properties, the perfect backdrop for the projection theatre built into the back of the bus.

“…Or maybe the digital voice enhancement,” she falters on her decision, “It picks up your voice in the driver’s seat and filters out the ambient noise, then rebroadcasts it to the backseats so that everyone can hear you.”

(Somewhere a mother of three with a hoarse voice is rejoicing.)

“But most of all,” summarizes Chiang, “It’s just fun to drive.”

I look at the Microbus, glittering under the showroom lights and walk around the vehicle thoughtfully. I bend down to check out the digital bumper sticker, which is rotating through phrases every now and then and imagine myself driving behind the VW on the road.

“Yes, I just passed you,” reads one bumper sticker phrase badged with a digital VW logo.

While the "Chameleon" isn’t likely to beat out any sports car on the race track, it certainly has passed us by in many other regards. From high-tech features that are more fit for a family room than a set of wheels, to a tailpipe plug that charges the ten lithium batteries that run the vehicle, this is one vehicle that’s going places – whether or not the ignition's turned on.