Volkswagen will start testing its new autonomous vehicles in Germany this summer, the company announced on Wednesday. The German automaker’s electric ID Buzz vans will use hardware and software developed by Argo AI, a Pittsburgh-based startup supported by Ford and VW. The goal is to launch a commercial delivery and micro-transit service in Germany by 2025.
Executives from VW and Argo convened a press conference this week to provide an update on their partnership, first announced in 2019 as an extension of VW’s “global alliance” with Ford. And while much of what they discussed was already known, it provided a closer look at the timeline for launching a revenue-generating service utilizing VW vehicles and Argo’s autonomous technology.
Argo, who has been testing its vehicles in the US with Ford in recent years, said it would launch the fifth generation of its automated driving technology with the VW ID Buzz, the electric version of the automaker’s iconic microbus. Bryan Salesky, the startup’s founder and CEO, praised the partnership between Argo and Volkswagen.
“We build our technology and partner with Volkswagen in a way that really sets us apart from what others are doing,” said Salesky. “And we think it really enables us to deliver a safe, smart and scalable product to deliver on the promise of autonomous driving.”
That work has already begun. Earlier this year, Argo and VW developed a prototype minibus with the German company’s MEB platform for electric vehicles in the body of a VW T6 Transporter and Argo’s AV technology, including LIDAR sensors, radar and cameras. In addition, Argo’s software allows the vehicle to “see” its surroundings, plan next steps and predict the movements of other vehicles and pedestrians on the road. This, in conjunction with Argo’s sensor suite, enables automated driving at low and high speeds, Salesky said.
VW said it plans to employ the vans as a ride-sharing fleet under its subsidiary Moia. Since 2017, Moia has operated a fleet of electric vehicles as part of its ride-pooling service in Hamburg, where it has served 3 million customers to date. Those customers have provided a wealth of feedback that, according to Moia’s CEO, Richard Henrich, will be deployed when the company moves to a fully autonomous fleet by 2025.
“We have learned over the years that both customers and cities have really high and very specific expectations for future autonomous ride pooling systems,” Henrich said. “On the one hand, customers expect ride pooling to be as easy, convenient and reliable as driving their own car … But cities, on the other hand, expect ride pooling to help reduce traffic congestion.”
The AV industry has been rapidly consolidating over the past year, with many companies being acquired or merged with other companies. It’s a crazy leap to keep businesses afloat in the face of longer timelines and steep operating costs with little expectation of short-term revenue generation. Robot taxis in particular are seen as further away than most companies predict. VW and Argo say they remain optimistic about their ability to meet the target date.
“There is still a long way to go before this high-tech becomes a huge growth market,” said Christian Senger, VW’s senior VP for commercial vehicles.