Volkswagen's latest concept people-mover, the almost too cutely named BUDD-e, is only a tribute to the original Microbus in that it has a rather boxy profile and sliding doors. "The Microbus was pretty much the embodiment of peace, love, and happiness," Volkswagen's new CEO Matthias Muller said during a CES keynote presentation in which we apologized twice for the company's diesel emissions scandal. Promoting the direction of the "new VW" as largely electric with a heavy emphasis on connectivity and autonomous driving, Muller tried to tie the idyllic associations so many have with the original bus to the BUDD-e and the company's future. For the most part, though, the concept shows off some daydream technology that fans of the old-school bus couldn't even have dreamed up under chemical influence.
Start from the drivetrain and chassis—because, frankly, that's the most real-world part of this concept. BUDD-e is the first Volkswagen design to use the automaker's new modular "MEB" electric car architecture. Much like the Faraday Future electric concept car that also debuted at CES this week, the MEB platform uses a thin, flat battery pack that takes up most of the floor space between the front and rear axles. In BUDD-e, front and rear electric motors provide all-wheel-drive motivation, though only to a claimed top speed of 93 mph. The platform maximizes interior space, with HVAC equipment nestled ahead of the front axle and the wheelbase stretched to the far corners of the 181-inch overall length of the vehicle. Like , MEB is envisioned as a way to use one platform across numerous sizes and types of vehicles.
Volkswagen is pushing electric cars for obvious reasons, and the automaker claims that BUDD-e "demonstrates what electric mobility could be like by the year 2019." The 101 kWh battery in the bus's floor provides up to 232 miles of cruising range by VW's estimation, and the company claims that the developments of the MEB platform could "enable a series production car to have pure electric range that is on par with today's gasoline-powered cars by the end of the decade." That's likely due to the sheer size of the battery, though VW also anticipates that by 2019 you'd be able to charge that power pack to 80 percent in a mere 15 minutes.
VW's designers say BUDD-e's aesthetic is "inspired by the iconic charm of classic Volkswagen vans," though the styling is definitely less directly retro than either generation of the New Beetle. LED backlighting emanates from the VW logo on the front grille, thinning out into a narrow band that illuminates the horizontal character line wrapping the vehicle.
I guess a strong beltline is sort of reminiscent of the first air-cooled Microbus, and maybe that vaguely V-shaped grille harks back to the character lines on the nose of the original. But the 1960s bus never had flow-through D-pillars for optimized aerodynamics and downforce.
Inside, VW went all-out with the future-tech, much of which will likely never see production as shown. Instead of a traditional dashboard divided into driver-facing gauges and central infotainment system, BUDD-e's instrument panel is one wide expanse of digital readout. A small segment to the left of the steering wheel shows vehicle status and trip data; directly above the steering column, a eD map and navigation instructions are highlighted; to the driver's right, the largest area shows infotainment, weather, communications, and more. Because this is the future, all that display real estate is controlled by either the driver or a passenger using touch, gesture, or voice control—for example, back-seat passengers can verbally request a climate control adjustment specific their seat. Meant to encourage a social environment, the rear of the bus is also open, with the seats arranged around the sides.
It gets even more futurey: The multifunction steering wheel works like a smartphone touchscreen, with a smooth surface and haptic feedback replacing physical buttons. The door-mounted side-view mirrors have been replaced with cameras feeding to internal display screens; instead of door handles, BUDD-e uses infrared sensors to read a passenger's hand gestures (or in the case of the tailgate, foot gestures) to open or close the doors. Oh, the doors can also be opened via voice command.
And being that Volkswagen debuted the BUDD-e concept at CES, there had to be an Internet of Things angle. This cute electric van would communicate with the smart devices in your home, letting you do things like answer your video-camera-equipped doorbell and let in a visitor while you're driving. You can also check your fridge to see if you need beer, as demonstrated by Muller. An intelligent reminder would use tiny tracking stickers on the things you carry around with you, alerting you if you accidentally leave your laptop or tablet in the car, or reminding you to grab your umbrella from the trunk if there's rain in the forecast. There's even a vague feature that allows items you've bought online in your car—or items the car ordered itself, like windshield wiper blades, when they're needed—to be delivered directly to a rear "dropbox" that opens for delivery personnel carrying a digital key. The audience clapped for that one.
Many of these particular advances are probably a little further down the road, and like so many future-tech daydreams at CES, it's not entirely certain that they'll get here at all. But the automotive guts of BUDD-e—the MEB modular platform and the hopes of a driving range and fast-charging network that could rival the convenience and range of conventional family haulers—are definitely aspects that Volkswagen wants to bring to market sooner than later. The fact that it's all wrapped up in a vaguely retro, Microbus-inspired design, however, makes this the subtlest of throwbacks.