Volkswagen Commercial Vehicles, a standalone VW brand responsible for the development and sales of light commercial vehicles, and Argo AI, an autonomous driving technology company, unveiled the first version of the ID Buzz AD (Autonomous Driving) on Sunday.
The two companies shared plans to test and commercially scale the jointly developed, fully electric self-driving van over the next four years at the VW night event ahead of the 2021 IAA Mobility Event in Munich. Testing of the prototype, one of the first five planned test vehicles, has already begun and will continue at Argo’s development center in Neufahrn, near Munich, as well as at Argo’s nine-hectare closed course near the Munich airport, which tests for a variety of traffic situations unique to European driving conditions, and Argo’s test track in the United States.
“Building on our five years of development and learnings from our operations in large, complex U.S. cities, we are excited to soon begin testing on the streets of Munich in preparation for the launch of the self-driving commercial ride-pooling service with MOIA,” said Bryan Salesky, founder and CEO of Argo AI, in a statement.
In 2025, MOIA, a subsidiary of the VW Group that works with cities and local public transport providers on mobility solutions, will be commercially launching the ID Buzz in Hamburg as part of a self-driving ride-pool system. The ride-pool service is designed to leverage the power of autonomous systems to relieve inner-city congestion.
At the event, Volkswagen Commercial Vehicles, which has developed a separate businesses unit devoted to autonomous driving and acquired a stake in Argo AI, demonstrated how ride-pooling via a self-driving system can help with managing traffic flows.
“An environment recognition system from six lidar, eleven radar and 14 cameras, distributed over the entire vehicle, can capture much more than any human driver can from his seat,” said Christian Senger, head of autonomous driving at Volkswagen Commercial Vehicles.
VW first revealed the ID Buzz as a concept vehicle back in 2017, a futuristic take on the classic microbus that invokes nostalgia as a family camper van. The final product looks a bit different than the iconic campers, now containing all of the bells and whistles of autonomy, such as Argo’s proprietary sensor Argo Lidar, which sits on top of the Buzz’s roof. According to Argo AI, its lidar can detect objects from a distance of more than 1,300 feet (400 meters). Four years ago, Argo acquired lidar company Princeton Lightwave, which has allowed the company to produce this new, highly accurate sensor with patented Geiger-mode technology that can detect a single photon, the smallest of light particles, so that it can capture, detect and precisely represent objects with low reflectivity like black vehicles.
Argo AI’s entire system consists of sensors and software that give the computer a 360 degree awareness of the vehicle’s environment, allowing it to “predict the actions of pedestrians, bicyclists and vehicles, and direct the engine, braking and steering systems so that the vehicle moves safely and naturally, like an experienced driver,” according to a statement from VW.
This isn’t the first time Argo’s tech will be used to transport humans where they need to go. In July, Argo and Ford announced plans to launch at least 1,000 self-driving vehicles on Lyft’s ride-hailing network over the next five years in cities like Miami and Austin. In the same month, the California Public Utilities Commission issued Argo a Drivered AV pilot permit so it could start testing on public California roads. Argo AI recently also received a $12.4 billion valuation, nearly two years after the VW Group finalized its $2.6 billion investment in the company.
A previous version of this article named Argo AI’s valuation at $7.5 million. A more updated number is $12.4 billion.