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How Volkswagen’s Retro, Electro-Futuristic ID. Buzz Could Open Minds to Self-Driving Cars

The all-electric Volkswagen ID. Buzz is set to hit the streets in 2023, with an autonomous driving version powered by Argo AI technology planned to enter MOIA’s ride pooling service in 2025. But ID. Buzz’s retro-futuristic design (see: “hippy love bus” meets tricked out electric multivan) is already blowing minds on both sides of the Atlantic. Recently surfaced spy photos of a camouflaged ID. Buzz out in the wild in Germany, has driven intense interest in the design, which recalls the roomy 60s styling of the original Transporter microbuses. 

It’s a design meant to help consumers make an immediate emotional association, with VW reaching back into its own rich design history and pulling out something completely new. “Volkswagen has decided to take advantage of the cultural heritage of the T1 and T2 Minibus and pay it forward, and I think that’s really clever,” says IDC automotive analyst Matt Arcaro. “This is not only moving into the future, but into the past.”

Volkswagen Microbus
The first-generation Minibus easily triggers nostalgia.

Not that the ID. Buzz is all about yesteryear. With angled LED lights, a steeply raked windshield, fully electric drivetrain, eye-catching two-tone paint job, and eventual autonomous capability, Volkswagen is helping consumers build a bond between an architecture they already love and technologies they’re still learning about. “It’s about being able to provide riders with assurances as they step through the door,” Arcaro says. “The more futuristic a vehicle looks, the harder it is for the customer to feel comfortable. But if it looks familiar, it reassures the customer that it’s a solid vehicle.”

Guidehouse Insights e-mobility analyst, Sam Abuelsamid, picked up on those design cues as well. A stylish yet “friendly-looking” autonomous vehicle, he says, is crucial for getting users accustomed to self-driving cars. “Even if someone has never owned or driven a microbus, they’ve still probably seen one somewhere, and that familiarity is going to be important,” he says. The classic microbus design may even have inspired other companies, like Zoox and Cruise, to create similar form factors for their expected autonomous vehicles. 

But there’s another reason that Volkswagen may have chosen the ID. Buzz as its first vehicle for autonomous services. Its roomy interior, notes Abuelsamid, gives a lot of flexibility for MOIA’s upcoming ride-pooling program, set to launch in Hamburg, Germany. “Something shaped like this makes vastly more sense [for a ride-pool vehicle] than something like a sedan,” Abuelsamid says. “You want sliding doors for easy access and to minimize dwell time.”

The microbus form factor also gives VW and Argo the ability to use the vehicle in another important context, says Abuelsamid. “It gives you the flexibility to use it for goods delivery, which is going to be a very important part of automated transport and delivery services. This architecture has the flexibility to do a lot of those things.” 

Automating the Love Bus

At VW’s Strategy Conference held July 13, the company showcased the ID. Buzz while discussing its plans for automation, highlighting six-seat and four-seat configurations for the European and U.S. markets, respectively, as well as a model that’s configured for autonomous package delivery. The integration of Argo’s autonomous driving technology will free up ID. Buzz passengers—or parcel delivery employees—to focus on other tasks, be that enjoying the ride or focusing on the order of deliveries. 

Volkswagen has made known its plans for the commercial use of future self-driving technology, with the first autonomous ID. Buzz ride-pooling shuttles, operated by subsidiary MOIA, to be cruising city streets in Hamburg in 2025. The fleet will first be tested by Argo AI and VW in Munich later this year, expanding soon thereafter to Hamburg. With testing for mobility-as-a-service options already underway in German cities, the ID. Buzz has the potential to make European city streets safer, cleaner, and less congested by offering passengers an on-demand, automated, and electric transport option. 

In Arcaro’s mind, Volkswagen has always excelled at creating what he calls “anchor points in automotive styling”—unique form factors, like the VW Beetle, that both drive customer loyalty and turn heads. What Volkswagen is doing now with the ID. Buzz, he says, is creating another anchor point. After all, Volkswagen has always been—quite literally, if you speak German—the people’s car. “I think the ID. Buzz will be a very interesting way to kick off the next revolution not only in styling, but in utility,” he says. “It’s the next step forward.”

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