Robot cars go from luxury glamour to utilitarian reality

More basic shuttle services in confined areas have started to look more feasible, at least over the next few years

epa06721942 A member of the public looks from the inside of a Sedric' Volkswagen driverless concept car during a media preview of 'The Future Starts Here' Exhibition at the Victoria and Albert (V&A) Museum in central London, Britain, 09 May 2018. The exhibition features over 100 objects currently in development intended to bring further automation to the everyday tasks.  EPA/WILL OLIVER
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Four years ago, Daimler dazzled with a self-driving luxury lounge in Las Vegas with a concept vehicle boasting a sleek interior that promised to pamper its well-heeled passengers into the automotive future.

This year the Mercedes-Benz maker is back at the annual Consumer Electronics Show, though with a more utilitarian slant: a bubble-like autonomous shuttle designed to reliably ferry people and goods around town at limited speeds.

The move from glittery luxury concepts to box-shaped people movers underscores a shift in the race toward autonomous vehicles. While driverless cars might not populate public roads for some time, shuttle services in confined areas have started to look more feasible, at least over the next few years.

“These vehicles have moderate technical complexity and drive at low speeds, which makes them easier to produce than conventional cars,” said Wolfgang Bernhart, partner at consultancy Roland Berger. “The potential for special-purpose vehicles and autonomous driving as a whole is significant.”

Sales of autonomous shuttles will reach about 1 million vehicles in 2020 and could more than double to 2.5 million by 2025, the consultancy estimates. While only a fraction of global car deliveries, it beats last year’s sales at Mercedes, the world’s bestselling luxury-car maker.

Here’s a rundown of some of the main concepts being shown at CES this year and elsewhere:

Daimler’s Vision Urbanetic is an on-demand mobility solution for as many as 12 people. It has an electrically-powered chassis with switchable bodies to transform into a cargo-version sibling.

Bosch’s driverless shuttle is a concept designed for four people. A concierge service provides reservations, recommendations, travel tips and users can pay via Bosch’s e-payment service.

Volkswagen’s latest Sedric concepts are a mini school bus, or autonomous taxi for four, suitable for car sharing or personal use. It is likely to hit roads around 2025.

May Mobility, meanwhile, is a BMW-backed start-up ferrying Detroit workers from a parking garage to offices. The six-seater electric vehicles still have attendant on board and the shuttles operate on loop on downtown Detroit public roads.

Other contenders include Continental’s Cube autonomous shuttle, while ZF Friedrichshafen, another large German auto parts supplier, has teamed up with start-up e.Go Mobile to start making driverless vehicles from late 2019.

Technical hurdles remain substantial for self-drives facing situations on public roads that are often difficult to predict. Bosch and Daimler have started a joint test using an automated ride-sharing service using Mercedes S-Class saloons in San Jose, California.

“We remain realistic that robo business models will still take a material amount of time and significant tech improvements in order to be deployed at scale and with a profit,” said Arndt Ellinghorst, a London-based analyst at Evercore ISI. But “it is now well understood that the risk of sitting on the fence is too large”, he said.