Copenhagen, Denmark - This is how Mercedes-Benz Vans sees the future of light commercial vehicles, or at least one possible future. The concept is called Vision Urbanetic, and the idea is to remove the separation between people moving and goods transport.
It’s based on a self-driving, electrically powered chassis that can carry a range of bodies, quickly interchangeable as required. It’s 5.14 metres long, and has no cab or physical controls, so of that, 3.7 metres is load space; as a ride-sharing vehicle or small bus, it can seat up to 12 people, while the cargo module has a volume of 10 cubic metres and a variable load floor, so it can be divided into two levels, accommodating 10 EU standard pallets.
The modules can be swapped either automatically or manually in just a few minutes, based on an autonomous driving platform that houses all the driving functions (including redundant components for safety-related actions such as steering, braking and acceleration) - which means it can arrive at your premises without a body, and pick up a pre-packed cargo module.
It’s also possible to build specialised modules, such as a service station with tools and spare parts (the technician can arrive on-site in a ride-sharing module, check out the problem and then call up a module loaded with tools and parts he needs to sort it out) or a fully automated mobile package station for last-mile deliveries - the possibilities are endless.
But what’s more important in terms of reducing traffic congestion, is an IT infrastructure that analyses - in real time - supply and demand inside a defined area, so that the self-driving fleet can to plan its routes flexibly and efficiently on the basis of what needs to be moved, right here and right now.
Mercedes-Benz envisages transporting more people and goods with fewer vehicles on virtually unchanged roads infrastructure to reduce the traffic load, while meeting continually growing mobility demands. Being electric, it can be used in zero-emission areas of future cities, and at night because the vehicles are practically silent.
Rather than operating on fixed routes or timetables, the system will network with service providers such as ticket-selling websites, to evaluate local events such as concerts and sport, and learn from them to anticipate future needs. For instance, it can use the data from the vehicle control centre to identify a crowd of people gathering in a certain area - and send vehicles there to meet the increased demand.
The operator’s fleet management is also part of the IT system, making it possible to operate in restricted areas such as a factory site or airport as well as in road traffic.
And because it’s fully automated and driverless, you don’t have to pay drivers’ salaries (which means the system can be used on marginal routes which aren’t viable with a driver) and the system can work 24/7, other than charging the batteries and maintenance. In any case, as the number of drivers required to move people and deliver goods ordered online increases, transport companies are finding it increasingly difficult to recruit enough drivers.
Mercedes-Benz is all too aware that many people don’t trust self-driving vehicles, so the Vision Urbanetic uses cameras and sensors to observe its surroundings and communicate with them, using a large-format display on the front of the vehicle to tell pedestrians crossing the street that it has noticed them.
And on the people-carrier body, several hundred LEDs display the contours of approaching people along the sides, to let them know the vehicle knows they’re there.