VW is reviving its iconic microbus as an electric robotaxi

Five years after Volkswagen first unveiled its concept for an electric version of its iconic microbus, we’re finally getting our first glimpse of the vehicle on the road. But rather than some throwback to an era of hippies and flower power, the ID Buzz is outfitted with a high-tech suite of sensors and computing smarts for its new role as an autonomous test vehicle.

VW says the autonomous ID Buzz will serve as a platform for the automaker’s full-scale commercial ride-hailing and delivery operation that it plans on launching in Germany in 2025. For now, VW plans to deploy the ID Buzz on public roads for testing in Munich, as well as at a private track near the city’s airport. The van made its public debut at the 2021 IAA Mobility Event in Munich, which also saw new concepts from Mercedes-Benz and BMW.

The vans are using hardware and software developed by Argo AI, a Pittsburgh-based startup that is backed by Ford and VW. The automakers formed a “global alliance” back in 2019 to co-develop electric and autonomous vehicles as a way of spread out the costs of what is expected to be an expensive and grueling process.

As part of that deal, VW invested a staggering $2.6 billion in Argo, which at the time saw its valuation rise to $7 billion. (That valuation has since increased to $12.4 billion as the company explores a public offering.) Argo opened an office in Munich and absorbed VW’s autonomous driving team that was based there.

Argo currently uses modified Ford vehicles for its testing in the US and has yet to reveal its own purpose-built AV like some of its competitors. The self-driving ID Buzz will be a more fully realized version of Argo’s AV hardware and software, including the company’s 400-meter range lidar sensors developed in-house.

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 will come in use as the company shifts to a completely autonomous fleet by 2025.

Despite initial high hopes, AVs are still far away from being able to drive anywhere under any conditions. The 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. Argo CEO Bryan Salesky has been more realistic about the timeline than most executives, telling that the technology will be “ready when it’s ready.”

Argo has been testing its fourth-generation vehicles in Miami, Austin, and Washington, DC, for the last few years as well as Pittsburgh, Detroit, and California. The company is also planning on launching a ride-hail service in the US with Lyft by the end of the year.