A grand vision keeps VW shuttle Moia alive

Christian Senger, Head of Autonomous Driving at Volkswagen Commercial Vehicles

According to a company alliance, Hamburg is to become the first city in Europe to have self-driving shared taxis.

(Photo: dpa)

Hamburg One rumor has persisted among users since Volkswagen’s Moia shuttle service was launched a good two years ago: the minibuses produced specifically for use in Hamburg could actually drive automatically if the driver pressed a button. In fact, Volkswagen is only testing the use of electromobility under tough conditions with the 500 cars that have been internally christened “Pluto”.

The start of autonomous driving at Moia, on the other hand, will be marked by a new development: from the end of the year, a pre-series model of the ID.Buzz electric van will measure 50 kilometers of streets east of the Alster. This will be followed by three years of automated test operation with safety drivers, and from 2025 the Bullis will pick up passengers on their own. Volkswagen presented the detailed plans for this on Wednesday.

With Moia, the group has been developing a system for shared electric shuttle journeys in Hamburg since 2019. Hamburgers have already ordered Moia four million times via the app. You get to your destination at around half the price of a taxi – often with detours for other passengers. So far, this has been a large subsidy business for VW: The group not only built the specially developed Plutos, but also three depots including charging infrastructure.

Volkswagen boss Herbert Diess had therefore already demanded in a notorious “fire speech” at the beginning of 2020 that Moia should slow down his pace. In fact, only a good 150 of the 500 buses are currently in regular use. The official reason is not stinginess, but the lower demand since the last Corona shutdown.

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The hope for autonomous driving is now the life insurance for Moia in the group. Because the vision goes far beyond saving costs for drivers in Hamburg in order to save on profitability. With Moia, fully automated driving is to become a global service business. The Volkswagen Group wants to use its strength as the world’s largest car company to arm itself against the autonomous driving projects of Silicon Valley giants from Google to Uber. At the same time, Moia is a showcase project in the targeted change from a car manufacturer to a software-driven mobility provider.

“Unlike others, we not only optimize a specific individual product, but an entire value chain,” said Moia boss Robert Henrich. Volkswagen can build the vehicles as well as organize the operation and develop the corresponding technologies from the vehicle software to the app. Therefore, three parts of the group are working together for the Hamburg project: in addition to Moia as the fleet manager, the commercial vehicle division as the manufacturer of the ID.Buzz and Argo AI as the developer of the actual technology.

Joint venture with Ford provides the technology

VW and Ford are now jointly involved in Argo AI, which was founded in Pittsburgh in 2016. 1,200 people in the USA and Munich are developing the technology for the robotic cars for the two groups: a conspicuous laser sensor lidar on the roof of the ID.Buzz captures the surrounding area, plus five smaller lidars on the bumpers, eleven radar sensors and 14 cameras . The technology goes far beyond the new types of driver assistants that are used in cars for driving on the autobahn, stressed Senger.

VW is not alone with the current project in Germany either. In Munich, for example, Sixt and the Intel subsidiary Mobileye want to test autonomous taxis with safety drivers from 2022. Christian Senger, formerly Head of Software at the VW Group and today Head of Autonomous Driving in the Commercial Vehicle Division, was calm. It doesn’t matter to be the first on the road. “It really depends on who can scale the fastest in the end. Whoever will make the race, ”said Senger. Volkswagen could quickly bring Moia to numerous cities around the world with tens of thousands of shuttles as soon as the technology has been tested and is ready for series production.

But for this Moia first has to prove in Hamburg that the model works economically and at the same time can reduce prices so far that it is suitable for the masses for everyday use. VW still needs staying power for this: in 2025, only 30 vehicles are to drive autonomously in the Moia fleet – just six percent of all buses. So human drivers will be needed for a long time to come.

For the first time, however, support could also come from tax revenues: The Hamburg Senator for Transport Anjes Tjarks (Greens) wants to promote Moia with promised federal funds for the so-called Hamburg-Takt. According to this, public transport should be accessible within five minutes everywhere in the city by 2030. Moia could provide this basic service in peripheral areas where buses and trains are not worthwhile – there as part of subsidized local transport.

More: Volkswagen wants to bring autonomous taxis to Germany in 2025