Mercedes Rolls Out Autonomous, Intelligent Van of the Future With Switchable Bodies

The driverless vehicle can singlehandedly reconfigure its cabin to better suit taxi-like rides or cargo-centric duties.

Mercedes-Benz

Mercedes-Benz Vans has unveiled its Vision Urbanetic concept, an electric, driverless ridesharing van that can automatically reconfigure its interior to efficiently transport goods or passengers as need be. The switchable interior components can be automatically or manually reconfigured, with a self-learning, onboard computer system detecting nearby passenger or transportation requests before switching the vehicle's internal components around as necessary.

The modular vehicle concept would allow for the transportation of up to 12 passengers. For businesses, the reconfigured cargo module has enough space to transport up to 10 regulation-sized pallets of goods. In terms of automatic reconfiguration, the Urbanetic concept details a sophisticated IT infrastructure that would assess the supply and demand needs within a given area in real time, and then automatically shift seats, panels, and interior bodies around within mere minutes.

Presumably, the electric van would internally reconfigure its moving parts when the onboard system recognizes an eight-person carpool request up ahead, for instance, or receives a transportation request from the local Home Depot. The self-learning onboard computer system is intended to pull from publicly available data sets such as concert or event notices, and thereby intelligently reconfigure its switchable internal bodies to suit the vehicle’s current needs. The Daimler press release claims this could reduce waiting times for ridesharers, improve delivery times for businesses, and capably avoid routes marred with heavy traffic. 

As a whole, the vehicle, its modular design, and onboard computer system aim to decrease traffic, adapt to existing infrastructures, and make ride-sharing even more convenient and efficient than it already is.

Unlike concepts that attempt to virtually redesign how we as a society operate given our current infrastructure, Vision Urbanetic aims to use the roads, avenues, and highways we have at our disposal to focus on reducing the number of cars in operation and thereby relieve inner cities of their growing congestion. This approach, in other words, is using the tools at users' collective disposal instead of attempting to create a new infrastructure entirely.

By relying on these existing elements (i.e., established roads, the ubiquity of smartphones, socially standardized acceptance of ridesharing services), the Urbanetic concept certainly seems more in tune with consumer needs and behaviors than something more radical such as passenger drones. Once "geotonomous" electric cars can navigate the streets safely and users are comfortable enough to use them, standardizing this quiet, environmentally friendly, efficient transportation mode holds a significant amount of usable potential.