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Opinion

I Rode In the ID. Buzz, Soon to be the Coolest Autonomous Vehicle on the Road

The vehicle has a little bottle opener, standard in the center console. It has little smiley faces embossed in the door handle wells. In fact, the car itself  looks like it’s smiling at you. The new all-electric Volkswagen ID. Buzz is a car designed to make riders feel good – as they see it pull up, as they click their seatbelts, and as they, presumably, open their soda bottles.

As autonomous driving companies such as Argo AI begin publicly deploying their technology via ride-sharing services in the next few years, vehicle functions such as safe, smooth operation will be table stakes – but largely imperceptible to passengers. Vehicle form and the rider experience will be a decisive differentiator in autonomous driving and in this case, the medium will be the message.

A close-up view of the smiley face inside the new VW ID. Buzz, shown embossed against the gray interior with a reddish orange and brown part above.
A close-up view of the smiley face inside the new VW ID. Buzz. Credit: Doug Newcomb.

And the message with the ID. Buzz is a welcoming, playful twist on feel-good nostalgia for Boomers and Gen Xers. For younger generations who didn’t grow up owning or riding in them, the ID. Buzz will likely feel cheerfully novel, unlike any SUV or van on the streets. I recently got to ride in the vehicle at SXSW in Austin, Texas, when it made its U.S. debut. And as a man who test drives more than 50 vehicles a year as part of my job, I am a pretty discriminating passenger.

But if my experience in the ID. Buzz is any indication of what others have to look forward to soon, there are going to be more smiles on faces than there are on the cars themselves, especially when compared to cookie-cutter production vehicles and bespoke rolling-toaster autonomous vehicles being developed by competitors. Full disclosure: I’m a bit biased about this vehicle. I’ve owned two Volkswagen vans: a 1976 Westfalia and a 2001 Eurovan Camper.

Simply riding in the ID. Buzz was an experience unlike any other I’ve felt in a new vehicle. The iconic boxy shape, the two-tone color ways and the “groovy,” cavernous interior all speak directly to the vehicle’s legacy as both ‘60s-era counterculture icon, and as one of the inspirations for generations of “van life” nomads.

The ID. Buzz is not a remake; it is a fully reimagined vehicle, designed for the future

But the ID. Buzz is not a remake; it is a fully reimagined vehicle, designed for the future. The high passenger perch is equal to if not better than that of an SUV or pickup. The truncated hood that’s a VW van trademark, and the ID. Buzz’s enormous windshield and large windows between the A and B pillars combine to provide unparalleled visibility. Whereas past VW vans weren’t known for side and rear visibility, the new ID. Buzz allows for a clear view around the vehicle and lets light flood the cabin.

The interior color palette of the ID. Buzz I rode in mimics the two-tone Energetic Orange and Candy White exterior paint. Interior materials have subtle but eye-pleasing embossed patterns and consist of recycled material such as Seaqual yarn made from collected ocean plastic and recycled PET bottles. Riding in rather than driving the ID. Buzz gives passengers time to discover playful Easter-egg design details. Those smiley faces, as well as a stamped silhouette of the vehicle on the seats and in the cargo area side panels. On the outside, adjacent to the rear-window wiper, is another printed ID. Buzz silhouette next to an umbrella.

A small ID. Buzz AD van icon is shown embossed against a teal interior.
The ‘Easter Egg’ of the ID. Buzz itself in the vehicle’s interior. Credit: Doug Newcomb.

Being a pure battery-electric vehicle, acceleration is instantaneous and the ride is near-silent. My driver, a VW public relations rep and amateur racecar driver, deftly threaded Austin’s notoriously heavy traffic, made worse that day by the SXSW throngs. I’m used to all manner of glances, stares, shout-outs and thumbs-up that come with driving cool cars as part of my auto-journalist gig. But based on my time riding in the ID. Buzz in Austin and the attention it received, the appeal of van spans age and gender. Words such as “cute,” “icon” and “the future” along with miles of smiles greeted the ID. Buzz from onlookers – a universal reaction I haven’t experienced in other new vehicles.

The version of the van equipped with Argo AI’s self-driving technology will, of course, look different. The ID. Buzz AD being built by Volkswagen Commercial Vehicles with close collaboration with Argo AI incorporates a range of sensors, including 11 radar, 14 cameras and six proprietary Argo Lidar units distributed around the vehicle for 360-degree perception.

VW and Argo AI are currently testing the ID. Buzz AD on a 22-acre closed course at Munich’s Franz Josef Strauss International Airport and on the city’s streets. MOIA, a VW Group subsidiary that works with cities and local public transport providers, plans to commercially launch the ID. Buzz AD in Hamburg in 2025 as part of an autonomous ride-pooling service.

“Consumers are going to love this vehicle when they get to experience it,” says Argo AI founder and CEO Bryan Salesky.

And I certainly felt the love coming from both inside and outside the vehicle during my joyride in the VW ID. Buzz at SXSW.

Journalist Doug Newcomb is pictured beside a white and teal VW ID. Buzz in a parking lot. He wears a gray and white striped shirt, brown pants, a flat cap, sunglasses, and a bandolier bag.
The author pictured alongside a VW ID. Buzz in Austin, TX. Credit: Doug Newcomb.

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