10 Nov 2015   |   News

Next stop please: Europe takes a lead in driverless buses

Public transport heads to the future with EU-funded trials in Finland, Italy, the Netherlands, France, Switzerland and Greece. But the cost of computer-controlled buses could prove to be a speedbump

Fleets of driverless buses summonsed to pick up passengers via smartphone are arriving at the bus stop in several European towns.

There is evidence of a real embrace of the technology in Greece, Finland and the Netherlands, which have progressed so far as to allow – even if only for temporary operations – driverless vehicles on the road. Other countries require an operator on board.

This month, the €3.4 million ‘WEpod’, will start driving itself between the towns of Wageningen and Ede in the Netherlands.

“We’ll be the first driverless bus pilot in the world to go into mixed traffic. We’ll have to respond to everything  - cars, bicycles, dogs, footballs,” said Marina Van Weele, a spokeswoman for the project.

After testing, the little pods will start ferrying passengers for real from Wageningen University to the nearby railway station in May 2016.

In Trikala, a rural town in northern Greece, short-range autopilot buses have also been given qualified approval to drive themselves amongst cars, bicyclists, and pedestrians on a 2.4-kilometre route. The West Lausanne region of Switzerland is due to stage its own first pilot next spring.

The projects have all received money from EU-funded transportation initiative Citymobil2, which has already carried 19,000 passengers in similar driverless shuttles in Vantaa, Finland and Oristano, Italy, and has pencilled in future tests in La Rochelle in France and in Milan.

The buses are all manufactured by French automaker EasyMile, which has also recently announced it will be involved in a trial in San Francisco.

The car industry is tiptoeing to a driverless future with motor manufacturers like Tesla, Mercedes-Benz, Ford and Nissan unveiling “assisted driving” features, with suggestions that it could take less than a decade before cars are fully autonomous. However, there is an opportunity for buses to make a comparatively quicker leap.

The vision of towns and cities switching to driverless buses is more achievable, because of bus-friendly traffic systems.

“It’s easier to do it with buses because they operate in protected environments, that is bus lanes, already,” said Nikolas Geroliminis, assistant professor in the Urban Transport Systems Laboratory at the École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL).

The goal of the pilots is to assess the public’s interaction with the vehicles as much as testing the evolving technology.

The tiny buses, which resemble large golf carts, are expected to obey traffic signals by day and night, while moving at a speed of no more than 20 kilometres per hour.

Because the driverless service can work on-demand – passengers can reserve seats through an app and indicate where they want to be picked up and dropped off –researchers and town planners think they will be cheaper to run than ordinary buses and be particularly useful in rural areas where few people live. 

Computer-controlled buses already putter around in other parts of Europe, such as the ParkShuttle bus in Rotterdam and the Heathrow Pod in London, but both run on special single lanes – a ‘glidetrack’ in the case of the Heathrow pod – and do not mix with other traffic.

The speedbumps

Automated bus proponents still face many hurdles

“Making a vehicle autonomous is relatively straightforward, making it cost-effective is much harder,” said Topias Pihlava, head of business development at the City of Vantaa.

Autonomous gadgetry requires a huge outlay. The electric prototypes swap steering wheels, pedals and other manual controls for ultrasonic sensors that control their movement to the centimetre, as well as cameras and radar to map landmarks and identify obstacles.

Sensors are the vehicles’ most expensive feature and start at around €10,000 each.

“That’s where the competition is - how can you make a good vehicle spending as little on sensors as possible,” said Maxime Flament, head of connected and automated driving with the transport association Ertico in Brussels.

In Finland the buses have not proved themselves in all conditions. “We don’t have any plans at the moment to make them permanent,” said Pihlava. “The winter is colder here – there’s a lot of testing still to be done.”

The Netherlands is taking a cautious approach with  WePod. It will not be used in rush hour traffic, in poor weather or at night. A control room will check that passengers are being transported safely.

Insurance companies too are cautious about the emerging transport field. If people stop driving and owning cars, the technology is likely to prompt a shake-up of their business models.

Insurers were a big barrier at the beginning of the CityMobil2 project but are now beginning to invest in trials and give discounts on premiums in cases where automated buses are pre-certified for safety. Zurich Insurance Group recently joined the CityMobil2 consortium.

Similarly wary are trades unions. Putting the tech into service in rural, hard-to-reach areas is one thing, but any attempt to replace bus drivers en masse would prove politically difficult.

There is also the questionable assumption behind driverless buses that everyone can afford a smartphone and is comfortable with its use.

First pilot in Switzerland

Switzerland will debut its own self-driving shuttles next spring in Sion, in the south west of the country. 

If the authorities give the green light at the end of this test phase, the shuttles, which are capable of carrying up to nine passengers, will then crisscross Sion and its tourist zone and climb up to the Tourbillon and Valère historical sites.

Researchers at EPFL are working with BestMile, a startup founded two years ago by two EPFL engineers, and the public bus operator PostBus, to knit these vehicles into the public transport system.

BestMile has developed fleet-control software that coordinates shuttles remotely and makes sure their interactions with each other and with other road users follow the letter of the law.

Raphaël Gindrat, the company’s chief executive, says the software mimics air traffic control. “We don’t build the vehicles or any of the auto-pilot technology but we supply the software that goes into the control towers,” he said. If someone hails a shuttle and experiences a delay for whatever reason, the fleet manager readies the Plan B shuttle.  

The company previously carried out tests in the summer on EPFL’s campus with money from CityMobil2.

Wei Liu, a doctoral student in computer and communication sciences at EPFL, says towns will need to be rethought for an age of driverless commuting. “Driverless buses will need re-charging for example – we have to figure out how that’s going to work,” he said.

To begin with, Gindrat sees a real opportunity to provide the driverless shuttle service in airports or university campuses. “But legally it’s going to be easier in private places – like large hotels,” he said.

BestMile will also be involved in a driverless car pilot in Greenwich, London, which, despite a big publicity splash last February, hasn’t officially started yet.

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