When designers at Mercedes-Benz set out to create an autonomous vehicle flexible enough to toggle between carrying cargo and people, they envisioned a typical day in the life of the truck.
The first step was developing a storyboard that chronicled the various functions the truck would use during a 24-hour period.
They sketched it like a comic book, telling the story of its double identities – a people mover and a cargo hauler – and the different routes it followed inside the small utopian community where it lived.
Designers even mapped one scenario where residents could opt to have the autonomous drive unit walk the family dog, said Kai Sieber, head of design for Mercedes-Benz trucks and vans and its Smart mini car division.
The German automaker displayed its multipurpose concept, dubbed the Vision Urbanetic, at the IAA Commercial Vehicle Show in Hanover, Germany last week.
The final design has a self-driving, electric chassis with modular capability. One module can be placed on the chassis to create a ride-sharing vehicle for up to 12 people. That can be swapped out for a cargo module that can haul goods.
Sieber gave Trucks.com a tour of the vehicle and explained its design. Here’s an edited version of that conversation.
What were you trying to do with the Vision Urbanetic?
We want to have a vehicle that can function 24/7 and switch uses depending on what is needed.
Where do you see the first use for such a vehicle?
Clearly it would be in gated communities. That’s where it is much easier to establish routes and install a small infrastructure. We are very confident that within a few years you will see the first ones on the road. We will start next year to try out that kind of a concept in our own factory area. But it’s not ready for the highway. The next step is going from a small gated area to a bigger gated area. Then maybe to predefined routes in the city. Then basically go on with a bigger horizon.
What would the primary use be on these first routes?
It would mainly be for passenger use. But if there are also predefined routes from a distributor to certain shops, of course it could also be for goods. The concept could also work in different areas, for example, as a package station. You pick up your packages at the time it passes by. There are a ton of possibilities you could imagine.
What were the possibilities you mapped out in your story boards?
We did 24 hours. The first thing in the morning it would bring kids to school. Then in the later morning it would take the elderly to the doctor. Then when it had nothing scheduled we had one picture where just the skateboard without a cargo or passenger module on top was used to bring the dog outside. Of course that is a crazy idea which we wouldn’t realize but we wanted to really work to open up our minds.
The styling makes the vehicle almost look alive. Why is that?
We think of it as a bionic structure, and it’s not only styling. We gave it an outer and an inner Kevlar shell. And that really builds the structure which keeps the volume together. The sensors pop out, almost like eyes.
We wanted to have a completely different aesthetic also, between the cargo module and the people module. With the people module, we wanted to definitely have a direction. We wanted to have some really emotional design. We also wanted to talk to the heart, to make people really curious to use that service. Because it is not a privately used or owned car, but it’s a company who runs these pods. And we wanted to create an interface with the car which is really impressive and inviting to be used.
But the cargo module should not have any kind of a direction. It’s almost symmetric, it’s purely functional, it uses space.
How did you design the passenger space of the people module?
With the interior we thought about different zones where you spend your time. In the rear we wanted to have a cocooning zone. And in the front, it’s very open, very transparent. You can enter standing up upright and you don’t need to be careful to not hit your head. It was important, that’s the reason why it’s so high.
We have a seating zone where you step up and would spend time on a longer trip. You step up the stairs to sit down. And you have this really cozy, cocoon area. And this is when you want to drive a longer distance, and you spend a little bit of time in the vehicle.
When would a vehicle like this be available commercially?
I don’t want to give now a precise number. We want to be ready when there is a demand for it. But this is a completely different approach for us than what we do in the car industry. It is paradigm shift. When we do, for example a new Sprinter van, we design it. Then when it’s really ready we start production and deliver it to the customers.
But with this, we have an approach more like the software industry. We create a car and we have a release, like a beta release. Then we modify it and there is a bigger release. That’s a completely different approach and different logic from the car industry behind how we roll the idea out. It will go from one prototype to a handful, and then ten, and then a hundred. When it works, it grows. And when there is pull, it will grow faster.