All posts by Callum Tyndall

Volkswagen presents the campervan of the future

Volkswagen has presented their answer to the campervan of the future, in the form of the I.D. Buzz concept car. Currently being shown off at the North American International Auto Show (NAIAS) in Detroit, the microbus is electric, all-wheel drive and zero emission.

The Buzz has a range of up to 600km, contains eight seats and space for bikes and boards. The VW campervan has long been a nostalgic throwback and it seems that Volkswagen is determined to build on such an icon and transform it into something a little more suitable for the future.

“The I.D. Buzz stands for the new Volkswagen: modern, positive, emotional, future-orientated. By 2025, we want to sell one million electric cars per year, making e-mobility the new trademark of Volkswagen,” explained Dr Herbert Diess, chairman of the Volkswagen Brand Board of Management.

“The new e-Golf2 already offers 50 percent more electric range. From 2020 onwards we will then launch our ID.family, a new generation of fully electric, fully connected cars. It will be affordable for millions, not just to millionaires.”

The Buzz builds on the I.D.3, Volkswagen’s compact electric car that was the first to go into production based on a new Modular Electric Drive Kit (MEB) and the first VW concept car that can be driven in fully automated mode. The Buzz is now the first minivan to do so and manages the feat with a certain flare.

By pushing the wheel, it melts back into the cockpit of the car and shifts the Buzz into automated mode. In this mode, as the car drives you can spin the driver’s seat to face your passengers while a variety of sensors and cameras, combined with traffic data from the cloud, keep you from a fiery death.

More futuristic yet however, are the augmented reality features. As opposed to a conventional cockpit, the vehicle projects key information via a heads-up display. No longer confined to managing your info via dials or a console hub, it’ll now be 3D and virtual. Additionally, the main controls will all be on the wheel and function through a capacitive touchpad embedded in the wheel.

Images courtesy of Volkswagen

One thing is for sure, this isn’t the hippy-mobile that the classic VW van became iconic as. Whether or not it’s a vehicle we’ll ever realistically see on the road is uncertain but, if successfully manufactured, what the Buzz offers is an experience unlike others.

Currently, there is a big push for autonomous vehicles across brands. This concept goes beyond that idea, however, and it seems that the driving experience is focused on turning the car more into a gadget than just a means of transportation.

The Buzz, alongside its sister I.D.3, does not yet have approvals for sale, and there is no fixed release date for it. The car is currently on display at the NAIAS as part of Volkswagen’s “We make the future real” brand strategy.

Stem cell therapy restores sight to blind mice

A transplantation treatment based on stem cells has moved closer to being tested in humans with severe vision problems, after successful trials in mice.

The method, which was shown to restore visual function in half of mice with end-stage retinal degeneration, involved transplanting retinal tissue derived from mouse induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) into the host retina.

In order to create the transplant tissue, researchers first genetically reprogrammed skin cells taken from adult mice to an embryonic stem cell-like state before converting these iPSCs into retinal tissue. When transplanted into mice with end-stage retinal degeneration, the iPSC-derived retinal tissue developed to form photoreceptors that established direct contact with neighbouring cells in the retina.

The treatment, developed by senior study author Masayo Takahashi and first author Michiko Mandai of the RIKEN Center for Developmental Biology, was able to restore vision in roughly half of the mice with end-stage retinal degeneration. The research team are now testing the ability to replicate the results using human-derived iPSC retinal tissue.

“It is still a developing-stage therapy, and one cannot expect to restore practical vision at the moment,” Takahashi cautioned. “We will start from the stage of seeing a light or large figure, but hope to restore more substantial vision in the future.”

End-stage retinal degeneration is a leading cause of irreversible vision loss and blindness in older individuals. There is currently no cure and therapies are limited in their capability to stop the progression of vision loss.

The therapy strategy used by the RIKEN team is that of cell replacement, a method that, until now, suffered from uncertainty as to whether transplantation of stem cell tissues could actually restore visual function.

The key to success found by the researchers was the use of differentiated retinal tissues as opposed to retinal cells, which have previously been the focus of field use for most researchers. In almost all of the retinas that were transplanted, the researchers found at least some measure of response to light stimulation.

“The photoreceptors in the 3D structure can develop to form more mature, organized morphology, and therefore may respond better to light,” Takahashi explains. “From our data, the post-transplantation retina can respond to light already at one month in mice, but since the human retina takes a longer time to mature, it may take five to six months for the transplanted retina to start responding to light.”

Although simple light perception isn’t full restoration of sight, it is indicative of the possibilities of the treatment and shows that visual functions can be restored.

Takahashi’s acknowledgement of the increased complexity of human cells requires bearing in mind; it will not be a simple switchover from mice to human patients. However, if their new experiments into human-derived tissues prove successful, it may not be long before work can begin transferring this restorative success to clinical trials.