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Driverless and Electric? Take a Look at VW’s Panel Van Concept

electric cargo van

Volkswagen will be among the first to get high-level driverless vehicles on the road. Its I.D. Buzz Cargo panel-van concept showcases the progress in autonomous transportation and full-electric propulsion. It’s a product of Volkswagen Commercial Vehicles that may be launched as a production vehicle as early as 2021.

The commercial vehicles division teams with Volkswagen Passenger Cars to produce a new generation of “smart” electric-powered vehicles. “From 2020 and onward, Volkswagen will come to market with entirely new-designed electric cars,” says Herbert Diess, CEO of Volkswagen AG.

“Our industry is changing and it’s changing dramatically,” Diess says. “The next generation of cars will be fully electric, very smart cars. They will always be online and will be able to carry out many tasks on their own.” 

“Smart” includes autonomous driving capability. Today’s most advanced production-vehicle Automated Driving Systems feature semiautonomous Level 2 or Level 3 technology, created as driver-assist systems that require the driver to be alert and take control as situations demand. The panel-van concept is fitted with Level 4 technology. This is one step below full-blown Level 5, in which the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration describes as having a system so advanced that “the human occupants are just passengers and need never be involved in driving.”

NHTSA describes Level 4 autonomy as “an Automated Driving System on the vehicle that can itself perform all driving tasks and monitor the driving environment – essentially, do all the driving – in certain circumstances.  The human need not pay attention in those circumstances.”

Details about panel-van production version haven’t been announced, but an idea of VW’s approach to autonomous driving can be gleaned from the I.D. Buzz Cargo. It requires the driver to push a button on the steering wheel for a few seconds to activate “I.D. Pilot” autonomous mode. The driver can then input destination information into the on-board computer.

While on the move in autonomous mode, the driver can accept, schedule and process customer orders, and perform order-related stock checks at a work station. Route planning that takes customer appointments into account is another system function.

What to expect from I.D. Buzz Cargo

The I.D. Buzz Cargo has a spacious interior to accommodate shelving and storage systems. At 198.7 inches long, it’s roughly 2 feet longer than a Ford Transit Connect Cargo Van and 2 feet shorter than a Chevrolet Suburban.

The van has a single passenger-side sliding door, which helps optimize space by leaving the opposite-side wall for storage. Shelves are fitted with sensors and, via a mobile radio network, allow articles to be tracked by a company’s order-management system. Illuminating the interior is a large 2.5-foot-wide roof light.

Wide-opening rear wing doors contribute to loading and unloading convenience. A workbench can be folded out of the opened doors, which incorporates 230-volt electrical sockets to power high-performance work tools.

Entrance into the van is via a digital key, sent from a smartphone. The seating configuration is designed to facilitate business organizational needs. Replacing conventional dual front buckets is a driver seat and passenger-side double bench that provides a fold-down middle seatback. The folded seat incorporates a laptop with flip-up screen and work surface for the driver.

Buzz to deliver 240 miles per electric charge

Efficient engineering also translates to zero fuel costs and emissions. Volkswagen reports that a Modular Electric Drive Kit makes it possible, dependent on battery size, to achieve a range between 200 and 240 miles. Enhancing range is a roof-mounted solar module that can extend driving distance up to 9.3 miles per day. A compact electric motor drives the rear axle, and the van is designed so that an all-wheel-drive version can be implemented.

A quiet electric motor replacing a conventional internal-combustion engine and driverless operation doesn’t mean Volkswagen’s new-breed vans have lost their souls, Diess says, noting the new-generation vehicles will have “very emotional appearances.” The I.D. Buzz Cargo and the I.D. Buzz passenger concept vehicle introduced in 2017 reflect the spirit of Volkswagen’s iconic Microbus, which was introduced in 1950. The vehicles’ general shapes with bulbous faces wearing huge old-school VW logos and two-tone paint are borrowed from the Microbus.

“In the ‘60s, the idea of love, peace and happiness inspired people all over the world. Back in those days, driving a Microbus represented freedom,” Diess says. “It was a car, but also a home on wheels. It was highly emotional, putting a smile on everyone’s faces. We will bring back the concept of the Microbus, we will reinvent this car and we will produce this car.”

The power of the Microbus as an icon of the ‘60s counterculture movement was portrayed in a Volkswagen ad, which memorialized Grateful Dead musician Jerry Garcia’s death in 1995 via a drawing of a Microbus front with a tear streaming down it.

Photo courtesy of Volkswagen

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