Volkswagen’s ID. Buzz Cargo – the winner of the International Van of the Year prize for 2023 – is the dawn of a new age for the German manufacturer. 

The first serious all-electric product, it is built on a shared group Modular Electric Drive Matrix (MEB) platform to leverage economies of scale and is available as both passenger and commercial vehicle variants. 

Yet despite the demand for the Cargo version, which has even taken Volkswagen by surprise with order books currently at around 55:45 in favour of the passenger variant, its popularity as a commercial vehicle is not the most interesting take home from spending time with the new vehicle. 

In amongst the myriad safety systems that include Car2X safety warnings, Front Assist with pedestrian and cyclist monitoring, emergency braking, PreCrash occupant protection, Dynamic Road Sign Display, Lane Assist and a personal favourite, Park Assist Plus – which with its memory function can save individual parking manoeuvres when, for example, driving into a garage, and remember the route taken for up to 50m and replicate it safely and autonomously – there is also the rather innocuously named Travel Assist. 

With a connected vehicle like the ID. Buzz Cargo, one which promises over the air updates for its ID. Software 3.2, it’s not surprising that there is a significant amount of computational power under the bonnet to keep it on the road, but Travel Assist takes the concept of driver assistance as we know it to a whole new level. 

Using swarm data, an anonymous amalgamation of data received from other VW Group cars introduced in the post-Golf 8 era, the Travel Assist system is plotting how and where to position the car on the road in what is essentially a precursor to something much bigger. 

“For us it is making driving systems better, but also to prepare for autonomous driving,” explains Christian Buhlmann, head of product communications and spokesperson for ID. Buzz.

Speaking about where swarm data fits into not only the ID. Buzz, but the future development of Volkswagen products, there are two clear use cases for the system. The first evolves around mobility as a service. The ID. Buzz is, after all, a people mover at heart, and VW Group has been testing autonomous people movement in Munich and Hamburg with the use of ID. Buzz vehicles. The second is for deliveries, freeing up the driver to perform their core function, sorting items for delivery, while the vehicle takes care of the route planning and driving. 

“There are two branches. One is personal mobility, you’re being shuttled to someplace where you want to avoid parking. Option number two, you have nowadays somebody that brings you stuff from UPS, Amazon, you name them, and there’s a driver. Now, what if the delivery guy or girl doesn’t matter? Doesn’t even need a driver’s licence anymore? They only deal with the parcels. First of all, it would be much quicker, right? Because no parking is needed – the car parks [itself], not the person. The [parcel deliverer] could sit even transverse in the vehicle and oversee all the parcels that are left. Maybe you don’t even need the people. You have parcel boxes, where you have a code to retrieve your item. What if the parcel box is moving? So those are our two fields that we are currently investigating,” explains Buhlmann.

Previous iterations of Travel Assist relied on infrared sensors, radar sensors and camera sensors to determine its guidance. But the system is now using the learning from swarm data to paint an even more accurate picture of the road layout. Once Travel Assist is enabled and a speed has been set, just like setting cruise control on the steering wheel, the system maintains the speed but also reacts automatically to any speed limit changes as well as applying the same logic as adaptive cruise control to maintain the distance to other vehicles. It then follows the lane of its own accord using its adaptive lane guidance. Left and right lane boundaries were previously needed to help the sensor and camera system to identify where the vehicle should be, but the swarm data function now allows the ID. Buzz Cargo to interpret where the vehicle should be positioned even when there are no markings. To do this, Travel Assist retrieves the data from other vehicles and integrates this into the lane guidance. 

Buhlmann describes it thus: “Let’s say we were we were talking and I wouldn’t have paid attention to the road, and I got into oncoming traffic, it would not have happened because the car has Traffic Assist.”

That’s reassuring to know, having driven to the meeting with Buhlmann at the wheel, but the swarm data is more than just about immediate safety systems but a wider learning and test bed for future products. 

“The car knows 500 cars that have been going exactly the same road yesterday, and in the future maybe that’s 1,500 cars, because we get more data from all of our cars, with more MEB models. Therefore, even if those [road-marking] lines were missing, the analysis would still be engaged and would look after me. And if there are no lines at all, it will just compare with what other [vehicles] did. What’s the average path people have been taking on this lane? Because if you do the average of what others do, you cannot really go that wrong in society, whether it’s in traffic or something else. Everybody likes vanilla ice cream, French fries, Diet Coke, or whatever it is,” he reasons.

Travel Assist has already been evolving in the brief time since it was launched in the passenger car market, but as more vehicles are fitted with the system, Bulhmann says they are beginning to get a real understanding of how drivers behave and consequentially, how autonomous vehicles should. An autonomous ID. Buzz is currently scheduled to reach the market by 2025 and it is this early data gathering which will play a huge role in how that first autonomous vehicle will interact with its surroundings. 

Although Bulhmann believes the primary use case for autonomous vehicles will first come in the passenger car segment, the role autonomous vehicles will play in commercial vehicles is equally as interesting. Fleets of autonomous taxis make sense, but so too does an autonomous vehicle delivering urgent packages. If you’re expecting a parcel, something that has an expedited delivery like a forgotten passport, for example, you won’t have to rely on a driver fitting their schedule around your needs. Instead, you summon an autonomous van and await delivery. 

As the business case and market evolves for autonomous vehicles, it is features like Travel Assist that will help the manufacturers get there. In so many elements of our lives we are faced with mass data gathering, but few would expect data gathered from the subtle positioning of a steering wheel would inform so much learning and mould the future of transport so dramatically.

Energy for air heads

The rising price of fuel, gas and electricity has really got everyone considering how they use their energy, no bad thing. But I had an interesting discussion the other day about air conditioning – that’s a sentence I never thought I’d say. 

It was in relation to the parasitic drain that air conditioning has on the range of an electric vehicle. While this conversation wasn’t with anyone from Volkswagen, it’s interesting in relation to the ID. Buzz Cargo because VW is really touting the slipperiness of its drag coefficient. That’s how it cuts its way through the air, and at 0.29 I’m reliably informed that’s rather good for a van. 

But how does this link to air conditioning? Well, I was told that as temperature increases and the need for aircon becomes necessary (we’re talking temperatures in the higher 20ºs or low 30ºs) the air density has decreased to such a level that the losses are negated. For years I’ve been under the false impression that aircon adds 10% to fuel consumption and while a slippery ID. Buzz probably alters the maths, it does make you think. Now, if only there was a way to make your house more aerodynamic… or maybe that won’t help the gas bill. 

George Barrow is the UK judge for the International Van of the Year, the prestigious prize awarded by leading European LCV journalists.