Volkswagen CEO Takes First Ride In Argo AI-Powered ID. Buzz Autonomous Vehicle
Volkswagen CEO Herbert Diess’s job revolves around making cars for people to drive, but last week, he went for a ride on the busy streets of Munich, Germany, in a vehicle unlike any he’d ever traveled in before: the autonomous driving ID. Buzz test vehicle developed in conjunction with VW’s partner Argo AI, an autonomous products and services company headquartered in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
VW invested $2.6 billion in Argo in 2020, following Ford’s initial $1 billion investment in the company in 2017. Argo is working with various partners to provide a range of driverless products and services to end customers, including ridesharing and goods delivery. And specifically with VW, Argo is developing the ID. Buzz AD to carry passengers autonomously on MOIA’s ride-pooling service, a VW subsidiary, beginning in Hamburg, Germany, in 2025.
Diess was a highly engaged and inquisitive passenger during the ride: he asked questions, and provided specific insights and feedback that could materially influence how the vehicles will drive and feel to customers when rolled out to the public in the future.
It was also an important milestone on Argo and VW’s journey to make autonomous driving widely accessible. His reaction upon exiting the vehicle? “It was good, it was fun,” the Volkswagen CEO said, smiling broadly.
Here’s how it went down: on a sunny day in early April 2022 near the Argo AI offices in downtown Munich, Diess hopped into the back seat of the ID. Buzz AD – a modern version of the iconic van – alongside Alex Haag, Managing Director of Argo AI Munich. Haag narrated what the vehicle was doing as it drove autonomously through streets and around roundabouts. Argo has been testing its autonomous driving capabilities on public roads in the city since September 2021.
The Argo Autonomy Platform, a collection of more than 31 integrated sensors and other computing hardware and specialized software developed by Argo, controlled the vehicle for the duration of the journey.
Throughout the ride, Diess asked Haag and the safety operators aboard the vehicle questions including what redundancies the Argo Autonomy Platform has in place on the ID. Buzz AD — that is, what fallbacks are in place if something on the vehicle or its control system doesn’t work properly? As Haag explained, “there are multiple pipelines” for the vehicle to gather and process data, including a pipeline from the vehicle’s video cameras; radar for detecting other vehicles; one for light detection and ranging (lidar) sensors, including the powerful Argo Lidar, which can visualize objects in high-resolution, even if they are small or matte black.
The data “goes into the fusion and tracking system, that takes all this input and builds one environmental model with everything in that scene,” Haag said. This process of “sensor fusion” creates a more precise view of surroundings that one could get using only one type of sensor, say, cameras only. This data is passed to the prediction module, the system that uses current and prior behavioral information to predict where other vehicles and pedestrians will move, and then on to the planner, or motion planning and controls system, which tells the ID. Buzz AD exactly where and how to maneuver.
On Diess’s ride, the Buzz AD was able to drive smoothly through Munich streets, slowing and stopping appropriately for traffic lights and signals, and taking caution around pedestrians and other vehicles. But Diess was candid in his comparison between human drivers and the autonomous vehicle , saying, “there were a few situations where the vehicle was hesitating, and a driver would have done it more smoothly,” and he remarked on how the van gave more space to other vehicles than a human driver might.
Diess was especially impressed with Argo and VW being able to “set up a vehicle system in relatively short time and get it running, an intense task.”
“It was a really nice experience,” Diess said of his first autonomous VW ride.
As Haag explained, VW and Argo are taking a methodical approach to testing and deploying autonomous vehicles in Germany and the U.S.
Haag stressed Argo’s cautious approach, which involves a rigorous ongoing development and testing process in each of the eight cities where it operates autonomous vehicles. In these locations, Argo is putting the vehicles into the flow of everyday traffic, learning local customs, behaviors, and road layouts.
In the case of the ID. Buzz AD, the process began over a year ago when Argo and VW created an initial prototype vehicle to test the Autonomy Platform’s integration with VW’s existing hardware and software, before shifting over to the new ID. Buzz base vehicle several months ago.
The ID. Buzz is an update to Volkswagen’s “microbus,” a van-like, four-wheeled vehicle that conjures up associations with hippies, classic rock, love, and the culture of the 1960s.
The production version was shown off publicly for the first time in early March 2022 and is set for sale in Europe in 2023 and in the U.S. in 2024. It is all-electric , and has been designed from the ground-up to look retro futuristic, more refined, and sleeker — fitting for the 2020s and beyond.
“Beyond,” is the key word, as Diess believes autonomous driving is key to the future of his company and the whole global automotive industry.
As Diess said in an interview at Bloomberg’s Qatar Economic Forum in 2021, autonomy “will transform the industry more than electric vehicles or electrification does. The car becomes so different when it’s driving autonomously.”
Now he can say so with the firsthand experience of riding in an autonomous Buzz AD — the first of what is sure to be many more autonomous rides to come.