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Mercedes’ driverless concept car: Ugly, urban & unique

Mercedes Vision Urbanetic: a self-driving, electrically powered van that is all about flexibility. (Photo: Daimler)

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René Tellers
René Tellers

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Daimler rethinks urban traffic, the car industry fails at convincing consumers and the Big Apple remains the holy grail for self-driving cars: read our weekly analysis of the most important news in automated driving!

I think we can officially call it a trend now: autonomous concept vehicles have a tendency to look…well, let’s say peculiar. We all remember the VW Sedric, dubbed by some as a “giant toaster”. Volvo’s recent 360c concept also had more to offer on the inside than on the outside. Not to be left out, Mercedes launched its new concept car last week; and it’s one that spectators unanimously judged to be futuristic – and kind of ugly.

 “Once the customer’s priorities shift, the car’s aesthetic might give way to comfort and functionality,” we concluded in our analysis of the VW Sedric last year. And this couldn’t be more true for the Mercedes Vision Urbanetic: a self-driving, electrically powered van that is all about flexibility. With the Urbanetic, Mercedes aims to eliminate “the separation between people moving and goods transport.” At the core of the concept is a chassis that can take different switchable bodies. It can serve as a people mover for ride-sharing, offering space for up to twelve passengers before switching to the cargo module, which can transport up to ten EPAL palettes – or serve as a mobile package station. “During the daytime rush hours, Vision URBANETIC transports mainly people then switches to city-centre goods transportation at night,” says Volker Mornhinweg, Head of Mercedes-Benz Vans.

While both Volvo’s and Mercedes’ latest concepts offer a thought-provoking glimpse into the feature, Mercedes to me is the clear winner when it comes to societal value. With its flexible approach, the Urbanetic has the potential to tackle urban gridlock by reducing the number of vehicles on our roads. Volvo, on the other hand, introduced its vehicle by asking: “Why fly when you can be driven?” It’s pretty obvious that this vision would not lead to less congestion on our roads. But it should be up to the us – the public – whether this idea will fly or not.

Secrecy first, safety second

How much regulation for autonomous driving is justified to ensure safety without hampering progress? The Trump administration has so far taken a rather industry-friendly approach. The U.S. Department of Transportation released self-driving guidelines in 2017. They asked carmakers to voluntarily outline how they are developing and testing self-driving cars on public roads.

Waymo is one of three companies that have handed in safety assessments. (Photo: Jaguar)

The outcome is alarming. 55 companies are currently testing driverless cars in the state of California. But according to The Detroit News, only three of them have handed in safety assessments – namely General Motors, Ford and Waymo. Among the no-showers are industry giants like Volkswagen, Hyundai and Toyota. To make matters worse, the paper notes that the reports that have been submitted so far “resemble slick marketing brochures instead of stringent regulatory filings.”

Now it doesn’t come as a surprise that carmakers working on autonomous driving technology won’t give away internal corporate information as long as they don’t have to. This is why the U.S. senate is already working on a bill that would make safety assessments mandatory. Let’s hope it arrives in time. According to a recent study by Cox Automotive, 49 percent of U.S. consumers say they would never buy a Level 5 vehicle: up from 30 percent in 2016. The only way to reverse this trend is by creating trust – which won’t happen if consumers have the impression that carmakers don’t put safety first.

Safe in New York City

Safety concerns also seem to be at the center GM’s struggle to get a prestigious self-driving testing license in Manhattan. In October 2017, the company had announced that its autonomous driving unit Cruise will apply for a permit in the New York City borough. Fast forward to almost a year later – and GM is still pretty much at square one.

The Cadillac CT6 features the semi-autonomous Super Cruise system. (Photo: Cadillac)

While New York State governor Andrew Cuomo had welcomed the announcement, NYC mayor Bill de Blasio is taking a more skeptical stance. “The Mayor has concerns about safety and testing an unproven technology on the busy streets of lower Manhattan,” a spokesperson of de Blasio told Jalopnik. GM claims it has “mapped a significant portion of NYC,” but talks with de Blasio seem to have stalled. “New York is a complex regulatory environment and we continue to work with stakeholders on next steps,” a spokesperson said rather vaguely.

With California and Arizona openly courting carmakers to test driverless technology in their states, it is easy to forget that they are not representative for the whole country. Political objections remain considerable in many states. More transparency would go a long way towards changing the climate – maybe start with trustworthy safety assessments?

So long, drive safely (until cars are driverless),

René Tellers,

Editor-in-Chief

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