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Argo AI puts a high-tech spin on Volkswagen’s retro ID.Buzz van

Volkswagen is leveraging its partnership with Pittsburgh-based Argo AI to build an autonomous version of the ID.Buzz, an electric van with a heritage-laced design that will make its debut in the coming years. Unveiled at this week’s 2021 Munich auto show, the prototype is fitted with an armada of cameras, as well as lidar and radar sensors.

It doesn’t take a well-trained eye to tell that the ID.Buzz AD is autonomous. Its hardware suite is clearly visible: Argo AI’s proprietary lidar is notably mounted on the van’s roof, where it’s perfectly positioned to scope out the road ahead. Bryan Salesky, Argo AI’s founder and CEO, said the lidar can detect objects up to 1,300 feet away.

Building a van capable of driving itself in a controlled environment is relatively easy. Deploying it in real-life conditions, where it will encounter construction, dogs, and pedestrians, is far more difficult. Salesky warned that improvements in autonomous technology will be gradual — there’s not going to be a big boom — but he pointed out that modernizing the infrastructure will play a significant role in helping driverless cars reduce traffic in big cities.

With the right technology, autonomous cars like the ID.Buzz AD could be part of a broad network of vehicles. They’ll be able to navigate all of a given city’s streets, not just the main avenues, to spread out traffic more evenly. “It might add 30 seconds to everyone’s commute, but we’ll all get there faster,” explained Salesky. He called this concept “load balancing” and stressed it can make roads more fluid at rush hour.

Volkswagen and Argo AI aren’t the only companies developing autonomous technology; the list of rivals they need to fend off is relatively long and is growing on a regular basis. Handling and horsepower won’t matter in this new arena, and drawing an eye-catching design while integrating self-driving hardware is easier said than done, so how will Volkswagen stand out from its competitors? Digital Trends went straight to the source: Company boss Herbert Diess.

Citing the Audi GrandSphere concept as an example, he said the interior will become an extremely important criteria when autonomous vehicles start appearing in our landscape. Comfort and technology currently help define human-driven cars, and they’ll become even more crucial when commuters need to decide which brand’s car they want to be driven to work in. “Some people will spend more time in their car than in their living room; we should make it nice,” he said. Convenience (like the interface used to summon a shuttle) will also be a determining factor.

We’re not there yet; autonomous cars still have several hurdles to clear before they pick up your kids from school. Volkswagen will initially build five Argo AI-powered vans to put the technology through its paces on a newly opened test track near the Munich airport and on public roads. When the testing phase is completed, the firm will begin deploying autonomous vans in Hamburg, Germany. The program is tentatively scheduled to start in 2025.

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Ronan Glon
Ronan Glon is an American automotive and tech journalist based in southern France. As a long-time contributor to Digital…
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