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When It Comes to Self-Driving, There’s More Than One Way to Build a Buzz

From mobility services to healthcare, package delivery, and public safety, the autonomous vehicles of tomorrow will need to offer highly flexible designs that can be configured in various ways to suit the needs of the end-user. 

For instance, while Argo AI and Volkswagen Commercial Vehicles will utilize the ID. BUZZ Autonomous Driving (AD) for ride-pooling services in Hamburg beginning in 2025, they’re also considering future applications for the van such as autonomous delivery of packages and other goods. 

And while they’re just concepts at this stage, researchers are looking to what the future could hold for self-driving ambulances as a way to handle staff shortages and allow paramedics to focus entirely on patient care.

In fact, during October’s ITS World Congress in Hamburg, Volkswagen Commercial Vehicles showcased visions of an autonomous ambulance based on the ID. BUZZ with rear-facing seats and a bright yellow and orange color scheme.

While the details were kept light, an animated video shows a cutaway view of an autonomous Buzz with a bevy of medical equipment inside to give viewers an idea of what a possible medical installation would look like. 

Another possible use case would be a mobile office with modular, configurable desk space—as autonomous vehicle technology will enable passengers to take their minds completely off the road and focus on various other tasks.  

A visionary design concept of the ID. BUZZ autonomous vehicle, produced by Argo AI and Volkswagen Commercial Vehicles

“If you look at today’s commercial vehicle world with combustion engines, we cope with ample demands as well,” said Katrin Auer, Volkswagen’s lead designer on the ITS project presenting the Buzz. “The same body can host shelves for parcels or shopping bags as well as a people mover or the equipment of a mobile nursery or the paramedics. You can say we transform possible use cases for future models.”  

A skateboard-esque design enabled by the electric drivetrain helps VW achieve maximum interior flexibility, including a totally flat floor that can be used for moving people, packages, or other equipment. 

Generous headspace increases interior volume substantially and also makes the interior suitable for jobs like an autonomous ambulatory service, with enough space to install patient monitoring equipment. 

Auer explained that on the exterior, styling cues are given more than just skin-deep consideration: While the retro-futuristic design look of the vehicle helps the Buzz stand out, it reflects a conscious effort to make it look friendly and enable it to interact with its human counterparts in the world. 

“We create [an emotional tie] by designing the front of a vehicle as a friendly face we introduced with the all new T7-Multivan,” she said. “But to go further the Buzz not only smiles, it also ‘looks’ at you once it ‘awakes’.

A visionary design concept of the ID. BUZZ autonomous vehicle, produced by Argo AI and Volkswagen Commercial Vehicles

The idea is for the vehicle to establish a connection through human elements, helping to build a relationship with its users.

“They will love their Volkswagen Commercial Vehicle for its human touch,” Auer said. 

In that same YouTube video, Volkswagen offered up additional details about the inside of the ID. BUZZ, including innovative seating design and easily cleanable surfaces, likely to remain a top concern for end-users in the post-pandemic world. 

Beyond presenting a friendly face to users and the wide environment, the design of the ID. BUZZ means careful attention must be paid to the integration of hardware. This includes integrating autonomous technologies like lidar, radar, and camera sensors into the vehicle without negatively impacting the design. 

“Sensors strongly influence the design of autonomous vehicles, because on one hand we want them to become a perfect integrative part of the overall vehicle design,” Auer said. “On the other hand, we need to consider the technical requirements that limit our design process significantly. Therefore, the intensive alignment with the specialists of Argo is a winning factor.”

“The range of use cases is as wide as those of manually driven vehicles, but self-driving vehicles make most economic sense when they are 24/7 in service,” Auer continues. “From our point of view, that is true for mobility services as well as for deliveries.”

Auer added her team must be “very visionary” regarding their future designs to avoid possible self-imposed limitations through conservative thinking.

“The functional demands of today and those of the future are not contradictory per se,” she explained. “It’s part of our job to create a seamless transition that offers clever solutions for the needs of our customers. Through extensive research and user testing, we understand how services will need to change and develop our new designs accordingly.”

Auer noted that naturally, out-of-the-box creative design thinking is “absolutely necessary” to stay competitive and to be able to create a perfect product experience—it’s part and parcel of the company’s effort to meet the high standards of their customer base.

“We constantly try to push boundaries of what’s technically feasible to stay on top of the game,” she said. “We aren´t surprised by our ideas, because they are a logical consequence of our progressive design process.”

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