Electric cars to become the ‘biggest data collection device’ by 2030 when self-driving will be common, says VW CEO

While Volkswagen’s ex-CEO was of the opinion that Level 3 self-driving needs radar equipment, contrary to Elon Musk’s opinion it can be done with Tesla Vision cameras only, its successor now says that autonomous Volkswagens will be a common sight in 2030. Sitting down for an interview, mr. Thomas Schaffer added that the company’s expensive testing vehicles are scouring the streets of Munich and Hamburg right now and there will be a commercial autonomous ride-hailing fleet of VW ID Buzz electric cars there by 2025.

The proof of concept doesn’t come easy, though, warned VW’s CEO. While it didn’t become clear if the company’s self-driving technology relies on LiDAR in addition to cameras, the “cost of the [testing] car is still prohibitive because so little of it gets manufactured,” said Mr. Schafer. He wants Volkswagen to have an early lead in autonomous driving because the regulatory hurdles are enormous. An automaker has to show its system is superior to humans, plus the legislation differs dramatically from country to country, so a newcomer will have a hard time going through all the motions in order to compete with more established solutions.

In the meantime, all that computing power needed to provide the complex calculations of the raw input coming from its sensory sidekicks will turn electric cars into “the biggest data collection device there is.” While that might sound scary for the privacy-minded, Germany has one of the strictest security safeguards, too, and that’s one of the reasons the legislation around autonomous driving is so complex to navigate:

You have to put focus on it and that is why we are pushing so hard in the CV [Commercial Vehicles] division, because once it happens it opens up profit pools and opportunities. I wouldn’t say winner takes it all but it’s a game that you need to be in early. You can’t wait and then fast forward so that’s why we’re totally focusing on it.

Back in 2020, VW invested US$2.6 billion in the Argo AI startup founded by Google’s ex-chief of autonomous driving systems hardware. Argo’s pie-in-the-sky development of Level 4/5 self-driving solutions, however, could not serve its legacy automaker investors which need faster time to market, albeit at lower levels of autonomy. That is why Argo was subsequently dissolved between its backers like Ford and VW, while the German car manufacturer brought its self-driving tech development in-house to its software subsidiary Cariad.

Volkswagen is one of Tesla’s main competitors and some analysts predict it would surpass Elon Musk’s company in market share as soon as 2024. That is why VW can’t afford to lose the autonomous driving race to Tesla and it will be interesting to see what its solution can be done once it becomes commercially available.

Previously, Volkswagen said that it would bet on a pay-as-you-go system where the self-driving service is only charged when needed and used, rather than Tesla’s subscription or direct sales, so it remains to be seen whose payment model will prove more popular.

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