It's a big and exciting vision, but car companies are still figuring out what those vehicles might look like and how exactly they'd function.
Mercedes-Benz attempted to fill in some of the blanks this week by unveiling a concept vehicle that reimagines how people will interact with autonomous vehicles. The true novelty of the vehicle — a pill-bug-like van known as the Vision Urbanetic — is that it's designed for interchangeable bodies that can be swapped out in minutes, depending on the circumstance.
The idea, the company said, is to create vehicles that can adapt to urban settings in the future, when there may be fewer vehicles on the road but when those vehicles are expected to do more than merely ferry passengers from one place to another.
The company did not offer a potential release date for the vehicle.
"The choices on offer are a cargo module, offering maximum efficiency and flexibility for goods transport, and a people-mover module, delivering first-class comfort and on-demand mobility," the company said in a statement.
In cargo mode, the vehicle with a total volume of 353 cubic feet, enough room to hold as many as 10 pallets, the company said. The space is made possible by a two-tiered floor that divides the space into two levels. Once the Vision Urbanetic is done delivering packages or running errands, Mercedes-Benz envisions the vehicle quickly transitioning to a driverless people transporter with enough room for 12 passengers.
How would the transition work?
"The rear wheels disengage and move outward, enabling removal of the body without any additional lifting equipment," according to the statement. "Widening the rear track clears the way for the interchangeable body to glide backwards on a track system. This all happens completely automatically and takes just a few minutes."
Mercedes designers appear to take the vehicle's egg-shaped design very seriously, with the company noting that the aesthetic speaks to the "language of sensual purity."
But initial reviews of the design were mixed:
Jalopnik called it an "autonomous box of the future."
Automobile Magazine said the Urbanetic looks like "it rolled off the set of an 'Alien' sequel."
Part of that language includes LED displays in the front and rear that "communicate with the outside world" to inform pedestrians and other drivers about the vehicle's intentions. It may sound like a minor feature, but it could solve a significant challenge. Autonomous vehicle designers are still learning how to create vehicles that don't confuse pedestrians who are used to making eye contact with drivers when crossing the street.
The Vision Urbanetic may rely on LED displays, but another company is exploring the idea of adding virtual eyes to its autonomous vehicles. Jaguar Land Rover enlisted the help of cognitive psychologists to find out how pedestrians respond to vehicles affixed with a large pair of cartoonish eyes that communicate the vehicle's awareness.
The eyes have been fitted to autonomous vehicles known as “intelligent pods.” Devised by a team of engineers, the eyes seek out nearby pedestrians before “looking” directly at them — silently signaling that the vehicle sees them and plans to remain stationary so they can pass by, Jaguar Land Rover said.