Much more than just a self-driving van, Mercedes-Benz' new Vision Urbanetic concept presents a fresh take on the future of urban transport by blurring the line between passenger and goods transportation. The autonomous, electric-powered vehicle is essentially a networked moving pallet that can be fitted with a variety of bodies to fit specific tasks.

This latest Mercedes-Benz concept addresses the issue of traffic congestion by creating fleets of adaptable vans that can be quickly modified and operate 24 hours a day, minus charging periods. The Vision Urbanitec is similar to previous modular concepts that use interchangeable bodies like General Motors' SURUS and Autonomy concepts or Toyota's e-Palette, but with a self-driving system linked to a data network.

At its most basic, the Vision Urbanetic is a wheeled platform powered by an electric motor and contains all the sensors and control systems needed to operate autonomously. It can carry a variety of bodies, including a 12-passenger module and a cargo module with 10 m³ (353 ft³) of space or the equivalent of 10 EPAL pallets that can also be fitted with an autonomous cargo-handling system.

These modules are designed to be swapped manually or in a matter of minutes using an automatic system. In addition, the platform can operate without a module, such as when driving between assignments. It also has redundant systems for greater safety.

By doing away with driver controls, the Vision Urbanetic can eliminate the driver's cab, freeing up more space for cargo or passengers. This not only simplifies module design, but it also eliminates the driver, which greatly reduces operating costs. There is a digital display in the passenger module to keep the riders informed and the side panels have "digital shadowing" to reproduce the outlines of pedestrians outside the vehicle to tell them that the van has seen them.

The autonomous driving systems include full networking with an IT infrastructure that can analyze such factors as local events, crowds, the Vision Urbanetic's status, and input from other networked vehicles to make a real-time determination of supply and demand, and optimize this with flexible routes and timetables.

The Vision Urbanetic is conceived as the basis for a transport company fleet or a public transportation system rather than as personal transport. The platform could deliver a fleet that requires fewer vehicles, yet can operate 24 hours a day, 365 days a year as a mover of both goods and people. This not only makes the fleet more efficient, but Mercedes-Benz says it will also reduce urban congestion, noise, and pollution.

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