Mercedes-Benz reveals Vision Urbanetic autonomous van concept

The German carmaker revealed its latest self-driving vehicle concept at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, in the face of growing scepticism toward full autonomy

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Mercedes-Benz is pushing ahead with its fully-autonomous mobility plans, despite experts in the field doubting if we’ll ever get to a state where steering wheels are redundant.

The German motoring giant revealed its latest self-driving concept at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas – an autonomous pod that doubles as a people mover and van called the Vision Urbanetic.

The futuristic vehicle is based on an autonomously driven, electrically-powered chassis and features a 5.14m body whose interior can be altered using cargo or people-mover modules, with the latter holding up to 12 people.

Benz has designed the Vision Urbanetic to “create a balance between people and technology”, which includes ensuring the vehicle constantly communicates with occupants and other road users – for example it uses LED projections to let users know it’s their vehicle coming to get them, and to reassure pedestrians that it sees them. 

Users will be able to summon the vehicle and choose which interior configuration they require via a phone app, and once inside a 360-degree halo display on the ceiling that uses augmented reality will provide them visual information, such as stops or interesting facts about their surroundings.

Mercedes-Benz says the ability to easily communicate with autonomous vehicles will help people overcome a degree of scepticism for the technology as well as insecurity surrounding the prospect of having little control.

Winning over the sceptics won’t just be a matter of changing public opinion though, with an increasing number of autonomous transport experts doubting if we’ll ever see Level 5 autonomy – where a vehicle can drive itself everywhere in all conditions without human intervention – at least in the foreseeable future.

One of these is John Krafcik, CEO of self-driving tech development firm Waymo, which is an offshoot of the Google Self-Driving Car project.

Krafcik recently told a Wall Street Journal conference that “autonomy will always have constraints”, due to infrastructure and environmental factors, and that it will take decades before we see self-driving cars on public roads.

Even then, he reckons, it’s unlikely that autonomous vehicles will be able to operate in all weather conditions, particularly rain or snow.

According to Krafcik, the constraints are becoming more and more apparent as companies like his push development further, as demonstrated by high-profile accidents involving self-driving vehicles in the US, including an UBER test vehicle that struck and killed a woman in Arizona.

"It's really, really hard," Krafcik said. "You don't know what you don't know until you're actually in there and trying to do things.

John Krafcik, CEO of Waymo

Waymo is still pushing ahead with driverless ride-sharing transport technology though, while trying to work within its limits.

“This is a very long journey, it’s a very challenging technology, and we’re going to take our time.”

Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak echoed Krafcik’s thoughts, telling CNBC: “I do not believe in auto driving cars … I don’t really believe it’s quite possible yet.”

Wozniak, whose company has its own self-driving vehicle program, says owning a Tesla has convinced him we’re nowhere near seeing steering wheels become redundant.

“Tesla makes so many mistakes. It really convinces me that auto piloting and auto steering car driving itself is not going to happen.” 

Wozniak believes autonomous technology will be best used for "assistive driving" technology that can allow cars to avoid most of the kinds of accidents we see today.

Do you want full autonomy, and do you think we’ll ever see it on our roads? Join the discussion in the comments section below.


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