The ‘Buzz’ in Driverless Shuttling

Armed with a new, high-performing Argo-developed lidar, VW’s retro ID.Buzz provides a hip start for the VW-Argo automated-driving relationship.

A rendering of the ID.Buzz-based automated shuttle and delivery vehicle Volkswagen will begin testing in fall 2021. (Volkswagen)

Promising the future “digital driver will be even safer than the human driver,” Christian Senger, divisional director at Volkswagen Commercial Vehicles (VWCV), announced in mid-May that his unit will begin testing a pilot of an SAE Level 4 automated-driving shuttle in Munich, Germany, this summer. The test prototypes – and an eventual commercial-service fleet slated to be in operation in 2025 – are based on VW’s retro-inspired ID.Buzz van fitted with a 360-degree sensing array headlined by a high-performance lidar sensor developed by U.S.-based partner Argo AI.

The new Argo Lidar slated for use in the coming Volkswagen Commercial Vehicles robo-shuttle service is claimed to provide clear images of the environment at ranges up to 400 meters. (Volkswagen)

The planned commercial shuttle fleet to transport passengers and goods will be operated by Volkswagen’s MOIA mobility services subsidiary. MOIA was inaugurated in 2016 and has grown from a staff of 50 to a current 1,000-plus employees. Volkswagen said that early in 2021, Argo installed an automated-driving system in a prototype vehicle for testing in Germany.

According to Argo CEO Bryan Salesky, the ID.Buzz test vehicles will be fitted with the fifth generation of Argo’s automated-driving system and that adding Munich to Argo’s existing test cities “is a big deal for us.” But he was careful to avoid committing to whether any U.S. cities — Argo currently tests in six — would join Munich in public-road testing of the ID.Buzz prior to the planned 2025 commercial rollout.

Lidar lab testing at Argo AI. (Argo AI)

“Our aim with the self-driving version of the ID. Buzz is to facilitate commercial deployment of transport and delivery services starting in 2025,” said VWCV’s Senger. “In select cities, customers will be able to have a self-driving vehicle take them to their destination. The delivery of goods and packages will also be made much easier through our autonomous driving service.”

Volkswagen said that light commercial vehicles “are the first, logical place for deploying autonomous transportation of people and goods.” Robert Henrich, CEO of MOIA, added that parcel delivery with the ID.Buzz is “a really good start.” But he cautioned it ultimately may not be the ideal vehicle configuration for that purpose. “Right now, we are in the preparation phase,” said Senger. “There is a long way to go until this high-tech becomes an enormous growth market.”

Argo Lidar-powered

Argo’s Salesky said that the company’s focus on testing in cities is “going where demand is” and that Argo intends for its automated-driving system to provide “true address-to-address autonomy.” He added that the company currently runs more than 10 million driving scenarios every day in simulation and that the urban robo-shuttle collaboration with VW is an important element in the goal of achieving maximum safety.

Guaranteeing safety is reliant on the robustness of the vehicles’ perception technology. The VW-Argo collaboration will employ Argo Lidar, the in-house-developed, high-performance lidar that Salesky claimed can generate photorealistic images at a maximum distance of 400 meters (1,312 ft.). Argo’s 2017 acquisition of Princeton Lightwave, the company said, brought discreet knowledge that helped lead to Argo Lidar’s “Geiger-mode” sensing performance. This includes the ability to detect a single photon of light — the key to sensing objects with low reflectivity, typically a lidar weak point. The low-reflectivity perception, combined with higher-wavelength operation above 1400 nanometers, are the cornerstones of Argo Lidar’s high performance and represents “real progress” in lidar technology, Salesky contended.

Salesky called Argo Lidar “smart, safe and scalable.” The company said its hardware-development team is collaborating with “a highly experienced contract manufacturer” for series production. He said it currently is being deployed as a single-sensor solution, but depending on body style or configuration, a vehicle potentially could use more than one Argo Lidar unit.

Steering-wheel optional

Meanwhile, VWCV’s Senger said his unit is developing advanced driver-assistance systems (ADAS) and full automation for both personal and commercial vehicles. He stressed that “a steering wheel is not necessarily in the future” for commercial delivery and mobility-as-a-service (MaaS) applications. Senger envisions a near future of urban roboshuttles operating at speeds less than 20 mph (32 km/h) and “highway pilot” ADAS systems for personal vehicles based on increasing access to once costly technology such as high-power onboard computing, high-definition mapping and advanced 360-degree sensing capabilities.

He noted that 77% of the German population lives in a city and that the 10 largest cities in the U.S. and Europe comprise about 50% of the target group for driving services. He added that VW and Argo are convinced that “a start in the most-challenging environments is the right way” to prove out the mettle of automated-driving systems (ADS).

Senger added that roboshuttles and automated parcel delivery are projected to be a $500-billion market by 2030. MOIA’s Henrich said the first ride-pooling ID.Buzz-based vehicle will be in service in Hamburg by October 2021. He added that he is confident that automated shuttles and delivery services will make cities more livable for everyone.

Other companies and alliances have in the past promised meaningful deployments of roboshuttle service. Almost all of them ultimately failed to execute, typically requiring ride-along “safety” drivers to supervise the ADS operation. The VW-Argo collaboration has until sometime in 2025 to reverse that trend. Senger insisted VWCV’s ID.Buzz-based robo-shuttles will be “market ready” – and “without any safety driver.”