January 7, 2019 11:30 AM, EST

Daimler, Bosch Cruise Into Robotaxi Era With Slow Shuttles

Concept vehicleDaimler’s Vision Urbanetic with electrically powered chassis has switchable bodies to transform into a cargo-version sibling. (Krisztian Bocsi/Bloomberg News)

Four years ago, Daimler AG dazzled with a self-driving luxury lounge in Las Vegas featuring a concept vehicle boasting a sleek interior that promised to pamper its well-heeled passengers into the automotive future.

This year the Mercedes-Benz maker is back at the annual Consumer Electronics Show, though with a more utilitarian slant: a bubble-like autonomous shuttle designed to reliably ferry people and goods around town at limited speeds.

The move from glittery luxury concepts to box-shaped people movers underscores a shift in the race toward autonomous vehicles. While driverless cars might not populate public roads for some time, shuttle services in confined areas have started to look more feasible, at least over the next few years.

“These vehicles have moderate technical complexity and drive at low speeds, which makes them easier to produce than conventional cars,” Wolfgang Bernhart, partner at consultancy Roland Berger GmbH, said in a phone interview. “The potential for special-purpose vehicles and autonomous driving as a whole is significant.”

VW Sedric

Volkswagen's Sedric concept vehicle. (Krisztian Bocsi/Bloomberg News)

Sales of autonomous shuttles will reach about 1 million vehicles in 2020 and could more than double to 2.5 million by 2025, the consultancy estimates. While only a fraction of global car deliveries, it beats last year’s sales at Mercedes, the world’s bestselling luxury-car maker.

Here’s a rundown of some of the main concepts being shown at CES this year and elsewhere:

Daimler’s Vision Urbanetic

On-demand mobility for as many as 12 people. Electrically-powered chassis has switchable bodies to transform into a cargo-version sibling.

Bosch’s driverless shuttle

Concept designed for four people. Concierge service provides reservations, recommendations, travel tips. Users able to pay via Bosch’s e-payment service.

Volkswagen’s Sedric

Latest concepts are a mini-school bus, or autonomous taxi for four. Suitable for car sharing or personal use. Likely to hit roads around 2025.

May Mobility

BMW AG-backed startup ferrying Detroit workers from a parking garage to offices. Six-seater electric vehicles still have attendant on board. Shuttles operate on loop on downtown Detroit public roads.

BMW May Mobility

BMW's May Mobility concept vehicle. (Keith Naughton/Bloomberg News)

Other contenders include Continental AG’s Cube autonomous shuttle, while ZF Friedrichshafen, another large German auto parts supplier, has teamed up with startup e.Go Mobile AG to start making driverless vehicles from late 2019. ZF is also showcasing an autonomous ride-hailing van at CES to demonstrate the company’s capabilities at integrating sensors like radar and cameras.

Technical hurdles remain substantial for self-drives facing situations on public roads that are often difficult to predict. Bosch and Daimler have started a joint test using an automated ride-sharing service using Mercedes S-Class sedans in San Jose, Calif.

“We remain realistic that robo business models will still take a material amount of time and significant tech improvements in order to be deployed at scale and with a profit,” Arndt Ellinghorst, a London-based analyst at Evercore ISI, said in a note to clients. But “it is now well understood that the risk of sitting on the fence is too large,” he said.