On Monday, Mercedes-Benz unveiled the Vision Urbanetic, an all-electric, autonomous concept that the German auto giant thinks will redefine mobility. It’s a sign that smartphone makers aren’t the only ones that occasionally flirt with modular designs. Big automakers are increasingly interested in powertrain platforms — the undercarriage of a car or van — that can accommodate a bunch of different vehicle bodies on top.
The Urbanetic isn’t just one type of vehicle; it’s an oversized minivan that’s capable of seating 12 people for ride-hailing trips or used as a cargo van with two different levels for storage and a total volume of 353 cubic feet. Based on its function, the battery-electric “skateboard” chassis can detach and mate with a different type of body.
Whether delivering people or packages, the Urbanetic is designed to operate in densely populated areas. As such, the vehicle includes large-format displays on the front and sides to communicate its intentions to pedestrians who are crossing the street in front of it or bicyclists riding alongside it. (The idea of autonomous vehicles needing to “communicate” with the world around them is catching on with a variety of startups these days.)
It’s also harsh on the eyes. Mercedes was clearly going for something futuristic with its design, but instead, it ended up with a vehicle concept that looks like an ugly sneaker knock-off. But don’t worry, the Urbanetic will be in good company. Autonomous urban mobility concepts are all the rage these days, and this one should slot in neatly next to Toyota’s E-Palette and Volkswagen’s Sedric, which place more emphasis on function over form.
It may be a little silly-looking, but the Urbanetic isn’t wildly different from the type of vehicle that will likely proliferate in the future, according to cities, tech startups, and automakers. Many people are experiencing autonomous driving technology not through vehicles owned by giant companies like Google or Uber, but as passengers in tiny, autonomously driven shuttle buses that are popping up in cities across the country.
Self-driving shuttle services, built by startups like Local Motors, May Mobility, and Navya, are quickly becoming the must-have tourist attraction in places like Las Vegas, Denver, and Washington, DC. Their routes are simple and seating is limited, but many see these tiny vehicles as a gateway to introducing automated driving to a broader swath of the population (that is, when they’re not crashing).
How would one summon this futuristic weirdo by Mercedes? Through an Uber-like mobile app, of course. And since every vehicle in the future is part of Mercedes-Benz’s cybernetic fleet, the app will give you a big green number to help identify which self-driving car is yours.
The unveiling of Vision Urbanetic comes on the heels of one of Mercedes’ biggest announcements of the year: the all-electric EQC SUV, which is expected to land in the US in 2020. Slower than the Jaguar I-Pace and with less range than the Tesla Model X (or maybe the same? Mercedes flubbed the announcement last week), the EQC is the German auto giant’s first entrant in a future lineup of EQ-branded all-electric cars.
Autonomous electric vans will no doubt be a big part of our future. But the EQC, not the Urbanetic, is the one you will most likely encounter on the road in the years to come.