Five years after Volkswagen first unveiled its concept for an electric version of its iconic microbus, we finally have our first glimpse of the vehicle on the road. But rather than returning to an era of hippies and flower power, the ID Buzz is equipped with a suite of high-tech sensors and computer intelligence for its new role as an autonomous test vehicle.
VW says the standalone ID Buzz will serve as a platform for the automaker’s large-scale transport and delivery business operation that it plans to launch in Germany in 2025. For now, VW plans to roll out the ‘ID Buzz on public roads for testing in Munich, as well as on a private runway near the city airport. The minivan made its public debut at the IAA 2021 mobility event in Munich, which also saw new concepts from Mercedes-Benz and BMW.
The vans use hardware and software developed by Argo AI, a Pittsburgh-based startup that is backed by Ford and VW. Automakers formed a “global alliance” in 2019 to co-develop electric and autonomous vehicles to share the costs of what is expected to be an expensive and exhausting process.
As part of the deal, VW invested $ 2.6 billion in Argo, which at the time saw its valuation climb to $ 7 billion. (That valuation has since grown to $ 12.4 billion as the company explores a public offering.) Argo opened an office in Munich and absorbed VW’s autonomous driving team based there.
Argo currently uses modified Ford vehicles for its testing in the United States and has yet to reveal its own specially designed AV like some of its competitors. The standalone ID Buzz will be a more complete version of Argo’s AV hardware and software, including in-house developed 400-meter-range lidar sensors.
VW said it plans to put the vans into service as a carpooling fleet under its Moia subsidiary. Since 2017, Moia has operated a fleet of electric vehicles as part of its “carpooling” service in Hamburg, where it has served 3 million customers to date. These customers have provided a treasure trove of feedback that will be used as the company transitions to a fully autonomous fleet by 2025.
Despite the high initial hopes, AVs are still a long way from being able to drive anywhere under any conditions. The industry has consolidated rapidly over the past year, with many companies either being acquired or merging with other companies. It’s a mad rush to keep businesses afloat in the face of lengthening lead times and high operating costs with low expectations for short-term revenue generation.
Robotaxis, in particular, is considered to be further away than most companies anticipate. VW and Argo say they remain optimistic about their ability to meet the target date. Argo CEO Bryan Salesky was more realistic about the timeline than most executives, telling The edge in a recent podcast interview that the technology will be “ready when it’s ready”.
Argo has tested its fourth-generation vehicles in Miami, Austin and Washington, DC for the past several years, as well as in Pittsburgh, Detroit and California. The company also plans to launch a limousine service in the United States with Lyft by the end of the year.