Volkswagen will start testing its new autonomous vehicles in Germany this summer, the company announced Wednesday. The German automaker’s electric ID Buzz vans will use hardware and software developed by Argo AI, a Pittsburgh-based startup that is backed by Ford and VW. The aim 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, which was 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 did provide a closer look at the timeline for launching a revenue-generating service using VW’s vehicles and Argo’s autonomous technology.
Argo, which has been testing its vehicles in the US with Ford for the last few years, said it would be launching the fifth generation of its automated driving technology with the VW ID Buzz, which is the electric version of the automaker’s iconic microbus. Bryan Salesky, the startup’s founder and CEO, praised the collaborative nature of Argo and Volkswagen’s partnership.
“We’re building our technology and partnering with Volkswagen in a way that really sets us apart from what others are doing,” Salesky said. “And we think it really puts us in a position to deliver a safe, smart, and scalable product to deliver on the promise of autonomous driving.”
That work has already started. Earlier this year, Argo and VW developed a prototype minivan using the German company’s MEB electric vehicle platform inside the body of a VW T6 Transporter and Argo’s AV technology, including LIDAR sensors, radar, and cameras. In addition, Argo’s software enables the vehicle to “see” its environment, plan for its next steps, and predict the movements of other vehicles and pedestrians on the road. This, in combination with Argo’s sensor suite, allows for automated driving at low and high speeds, Salesky said.
VW said that it plans to put the vans in service as a ride-sharing fleet under its subsidiary Moia. Since 2017, Moia has been operating 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 treasure trove of feedback that Moia CEO Richard Henrich says will come in use as the company shifts to a completely autonomous fleet by 2025.
“We have learned in recent years that both customers and cities have really high and very specific expectations towards future autonomous ride-pooling systems,” Henrich said. “Customers, on the one hand side, expect ride-pooling to be as easy, convenient, and reliable as riding their own car… But cities, on the other hand, expect ride pooling to help alleviate traffic congestion.”
The AV industry has been consolidating rapidly over the past year, with many companies being acquired or merging with other companies. It’s a mad dash to keep businesses afloat in the face of lengthening timelines and steep operational costs with little expectation for revenue generation in the near term. Robotaxis, in particular, are seen as being further out than most companies are predicting. VW and Argo say they remain bullish about their ability to hit the target date.
“There is a long way to go still until this high tech becomes an enormous growth market,” said Christian Senger, VW’s senior VP for commercial vehicles.