Sit back and relax
Motor Trend will never publish a First Drive review on the Volkswagen SEDRIC. Nor will anyone else. That’s because the SEDRIC, which Volkswagen Group is currently evaluating for launch sometime after 2023, is a completely autonomous vehicle. It has no steering wheel. No pedals. You just call it up on your smartphone and tell it where you are and where you want to go. When it arrives, get in, sit back, relax, and enjoy the ride.
The SEDRIC prototype made available for our ride session—the name is a contraction of SElf DRIving Car—is one of six in existence and the only one capable of fully autonomous operation. It’s built on a modified version of Volkswagen’s E-Golf platform, which means a front-mounted e-motor, front-wheel drive, and a 35-kW-hr battery.
Should the SEDRIC project get the green light—sources say a decision will likely be made sometime in 2020—the production version would be built on Volkswagen Group’s versatile new MEB electric vehicle architecture. That means rear-wheel drive, the motor switches to the rear, and all the computer hardware for the autonomous drive systems moves to the front of the car. The basic shape and dimensions would remain unchanged.
The SEDRIC is designed as an inner-city vehicle. Top speed is limited to about 20 mph, and not simply for safety reasons: With speeds in traffic-snarled cities like New York, London, and Beijing last year averaging between 5 and 8 mph, VW engineers see little point in building a vehicle with performance capability that will never be used. Because its operating speeds are so low, the SEDRIC can travel 120 to 180 miles between charges even on the small 35-kW-hr battery used in the prototype. Building the production version on MEB will allow a 60-kW-hr battery pack, significantly increasing range.
Keeping overall speeds low also helps passenger comfort. The computers controlling the SEDRIC are currently programmed not to exceed 0.4 g lateral acceleration during cornering. (One of VW’s side projects as part of the development of autonomous vehicles is research into motion sickness—engineers want to understand the causes, why some individuals are more susceptible than others, and what can be done to ameliorate symptoms.)
We’re standing on the vast expanse of tarmac that is the steering test pad at VW Group’s Ehra-Lessien proving ground when the SEDRIC glides to a halt in front of us. Panels in the doors glow green, then the rearmost door softly pops outward and slides to the back. The front door dances a similar ballet toward the front of the vehicle. The doors wrap over the roof, floor height is low, and there’s no sill to step over: You simply walk in, choose a seat, and buckle up. The SEDRIC’s interior is configurable, but the four-seat vis-à-vis setup—passengers at each end of the cabin, facing each other—is likely to be the most common.
A touchscreen is attached to the fixed armrest between the two rear seats. Below it is a panel with three buttons: Stop, Go, and Call. Go and Call are illuminated. I press Go. The doors close, and after a moment the SEDRIC silently oozes into motion.
Our course is short and simple, delineated by a string of cones along either side. A longish straight takes us into a looping 180-degree turn, then a series of squiggles as the SEDRIC heads us back to our starting point. Ehra-Lessien’s steering pad is an asphalt lake surfaced like a billiards table, so we can’t comment on the ride, though engineers confided that out in the real world they’d prefer higher-profile tires than the 195/55 R20 Continentals fitted to the SEDRIC prototype because “the designers wanted big wheels.”
What we can tell you is the acceleration, steering, and brake actions were executed with the deft smoothness of a master chauffeur. But we’ll have to wait until we experience the SEDRIC in real-world conditions, surrounded by traffic and pedestrians, before we make a definitive call on the effectiveness of VW’s self-driving technology.
It’s basically a tall box on wheels, so of course the SEDRIC’s interior is roomy. Although the wheelbase is shorter than a Golf’s, passengers lounge in a cabin roomier than that of a Volkswagen T5 van. Visibility is excellent. The wrap-over doors feature windows from top to bottom, the view interrupted only by a beam that carries switchgear and provides side impact protection. The air conditioning and vents are all in the roof, and a transparent OLED screen at the front of the cabin enables content to be displayed without obstructing the view ahead.
The SEDRIC is spearheading Volkswagen Group’s foray into the brave new world of mobility services. A report published last year by investment banker Goldman Sachs suggested the global ride-hailing market—taxis, Uber, Lyft, etc.—could be worth $285 billion by 2030. Removing the driver from the business model through autonomous driving technology would increase the potential profit pool from $65 billion to $220 billion, Goldman Sachs says. Bottom line: An automaker operating its own autonomous ride-hailing fleet could make $14,000 per car over three years, nine times the average profit it makes selling a single vehicle.
A presentation to the VW board currently puts the chances of the SEDRIC overcoming technical and legislative challenges sufficiently to enable it to be greenlit for production at “medium.” It’s a risky project. But the rewards could be significant.
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