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Volkswagen Embarks on Autonomous Vehicle Testing in the US with the ID Buzz Microbus




In an important advancement for the future of autonomous vehicles, Volkswagen Group has announced the testing of autonomous vehicles in the US. Commencing this month, the focus of the trials will be the driverless versions of its ID Buzz electric microbus. The tests will begin in Austin, Texas, and are slated to expand to at least four other US cities in the next three years.

Volkswagen’s Strategy for Autonomous Vehicles

Despite earlier plans to leverage Argo AI’s technology, which fell through following the withdrawal of funding by Volkswagen and Ford, the company has now committed to developing the required hardware and software in-house in collaboration with Mobileye, a leader in advanced driver-assistance systems. This initiative aims to launch a robotaxi service by 2026, with the ID Buzz set to hit the markets in 2024. For this purpose, Volkswagen is creating a new subsidiary, Volkswagen Autonomous Driving Mobility, and Transport (VW ADMT), with offices in Austin and Belmont, California. The subsidiary will be staffed by ex-Argo employees and will also develop fleet management and “remote guidance solutions” for the autonomous ID Buzz vehicles.

Volkswagen’s Experience with Autonomous Vehicles

Volkswagen’s interest in autonomous vehicles is not new, despite the challenges experienced with Argo AI. The company previously severed ties with Aurora Innovation in 2019. This autonomy startup was founded by Chris Urmson, a former leader of Google’s self-driving team. Bryan Salesky, another ex-Google self-driving team member, co-founded Argo. VW’s rivals, such as GM’s Cruise and Hyundai’s Motional, have already established commercial robotaxi services in the US and aim to expand to new markets.

German Testing and Future Plans

Volkswagen has been testing its autonomous ID Buzz in Germany and plans on launching commercial robotaxi and delivery services in 2025. The service will operate under its subsidiary Moia, which has been running a fleet of electric vehicles as part of its “ride-pooling” service in Hamburg since 2017. Moia’s autonomous driving software is developed by another subsidiary, Cariad, which has gone through multiple leadership changes over the past year. The initial fleet of 10 ID Buzz microbuses will be equipped with autonomous driving software developed in partnership with Mobileye and sensors like cameras, radar, and lidar. Every vehicle will have a trained safety driver behind the wheel to oversee operations and regain control if the vehicle encounters a problematic situation.

Looking Forward

Volkswagen’s US strategy diverges from its approach in Germany, as it doesn’t aim to build a ride-hailing service like Moia in the US. Instead, the company intends to sell autonomous vehicles to other businesses. The initial testing will involve 10 ID Buzz EVs on the streets of Austin, with human supervisors at the helm. As Christian Senger, a VW board member responsible for commercial vehicles, shared, “Expanding our autonomous vehicle program to the North American Region is the next step in our global strategic road map…Moving into this next phase will help us test, validate, and refine technology; bring us closer to establishing commercially available transportation offerings; and eventually, grow the diverse mobility portfolio for the Volkswagen Group.”

The Evolution of the Autonomous Vehicle Industry

The autonomous vehicle industry is still in the nascent phase of its journey toward widespread acceptance and implementation. The sector has grappled with challenges such as technical complexities, regulatory hurdles, and public safety concerns, which have necessitated thorough testing and validation of autonomous driving technologies. Volkswagen’s decision to test autonomous vehicles in the US marks a significant stride in overcoming these obstacles. By choosing to start with the ID Buzz, a popular and well-received model, the company is poised to gather extensive insights into the real-world application and performance of autonomous driving technology.

The Austin Advantage

The selection of Austin, Texas, as the initial testing ground further underlines Volkswagen’s strategic approach. Austin has a proven track record for embracing innovation and provides a conducive climate for testing autonomous vehicles. This supportive environment will enable Volkswagen to engage in valuable dialogue with the city and its diverse stakeholders, fostering a collaborative approach to address potential challenges and garner feedback.

Preparation for the Autonomous Future

Volkswagen’s commitment to autonomous driving also brings them in direct competition with other automotive industry leaders who are also pursuing their autonomous vehicle programs. These advancements are not just about the competition between companies, but they signify a collective effort in shaping the future of mobility. With the expansion of its autonomous vehicle program to the North American region, Volkswagen stands on the brink of a new era. As the company tests, validates, and refines its technology, it moves one step closer to establishing commercially viable transportation offerings and growing its diverse mobility portfolio.

In conclusion, as Volkswagen embarks on this exciting journey, the world watches with keen interest, anticipating the dawn of a new era in autonomous mobility. While the road may still have challenges, the progress made so far is promising and indicative of a not-too-distant future where autonomous vehicles become a part of our everyday life.