David Moss is a Detroit-based freelance transportation writer. When he is not writing about vehicle technology, he spends his time hiking. You can reach him at @davidcmoss
Buses driving autonomously might seem like something from science fiction but the technology is developing fast, and is actually in practice, or at least in a trial phase, in a number of cities all across Asia, Europe and North America.
The most important finding is that while European and American driverless trials are for very small buses – too small to be transformative to the larger public bus market – larger buses are now also under development, in China and also in a recent announcement by Mercedes. If perfected, these large buses would have the potential to dramatically increase the quantity of transit service that agencies could afford to offer.
While there has been a heated debate in the United States over driverless vehicles, China took the initiative by developing a self-driving bus that completed a 20 mile trip through the city of Zhengzhou in August of 2015. Using a variety of sensors, cameras and an integrated navigation system, this bus was able to roll through the streets of Zhengzhou at a top speed of about 42 miles per hour.
This remarkable achievement was the end product of a three-year trial conducted in the city by Yutong—a Chinese bus company and the creator of the bus. This company, along with the Chinese Academy of Engineering, has shown that it is possible to put a driverless bus on the road and do it safely. However, while this test was impressive, it’s still going to take additional testing before a full-scale rollout can begin nationwide. Fortunately, that is currently in the works as the Chinese tech firm Baidu has recently unveiled a five-year plan to introduce a variety of autonomous vehicles at the streets of Wuhu.
While Google believes that the first truly autonomous vehicles to be used full time on the road will be taxi cabs, Baidu believes that the future of this technology is in driverless buses and/or shuttles. Although it should be said that their five year plan not only focuses on autonomous buses and vans, but on cars as well.
A few years ago, Singapore launched the Singapore Autonomous Vehicle Initiative (SAVI)—a joint partnership with the Land Transit Authority and A*STAR – whose primary goal is to research and develop autonomous vehicle technology.
SAVI has currently partnered with MIT on improving public transportation systems in urban areas by using autonomous vehicle technology. Several trials will take place this year, and the test route has already been planned to test the efficacy of driverless technology solutions. This study, which is expected to take about two years to complete, will end in 2018—at which time the public is expected to have full use of driverless transportation technology.
Greece and Switzerland
Greece also tested a small driverless bus in the town of Trikala—a rural community nestled in Northern Greece. Their trial lasted from October 2015 until February 2016, and featured a ten-passenger bus that could navigate the streets at a speed of about 12.4 miles per hour. In Switzerland, two driverless “SmartShuttles” are currently being tested in the Old Town of Scion. They are currently carrying passengers for free. The trials will continue over the next two years.
The United Kingdom
London unveiled plans to introduce autonomous bus-like vehicles this year. This plan—part of the Greenwich Automated Transport Environment Project (GATEway)—will utilize driverless shuttles that will be first tested on the streets of Greenwich—around the O2 Arena, several residential areas and the North Greenwich tube station. Currently, the Heathrow Airport shuttle operates between the business car park and terminal five. Seven of these shuttles will be modified for use in these trials, which are slated to begin later this year. If the trials prove to be successful, then people can expect to see completely autonomous shuttles used for everything from transportation to automated deliveries.
Belgium and Sweden
Belgium is also working on its own autonomous transit system that is due to be launched in 2018. This project—which is a joint partnership between the Belgium public transport operator De Lijn and the Brussels Airport Company—will feature driverless buses that are expected to transport passengers and airport staff around the airport.
In April of 2016, Sweden also conducted a trial on driverless bus technology, completed by Ericsson, a Swedish IT company that operated minibuses using 5G technology. However, their plan is not only to have autonomous electric vehicles transporting passengers, but also to develop a whole system of vehicles working together in a highly efficient transportation hub.
The Bay Area is ground zero for autonomous buses in the United States. San Francisco has developed a detailed plan for driverless vehicles on its roads, a system that will use both buses and shuttles. And a Bishop Ranch business park in San Ramon, California is initiating a pilot program in the summer of 2016 that will use two EZ10 pods to relieve traffic congestion in the area.
The Future of Driverless Bus Technology: Benefits and Concerns
Driverless technology may well be the wave of the future. And there are several reasons why that is the case. The vehicles in question are good for the environment because they are all electric and in full use they will dramatically reduce a city’s oil consumption. They are also safer than human driven vehicles. Some studies have also shown that driverless vehicles are more efficient and will increase the flow of traffic—particularly in congested areas. But most importantly, they would allow transit agencies to make bus service dramatically more abundant, by severing the link between operating costs and labor costs that constrains all bus operations today.
It is also clear that many people have concerns about driverless technology. There are still many that believe that driverless buses are unsafe.
Certainly, there will be labor resisitance to automation, though history shows that automation usually prevails in the end. While the jobs of some drivers will indeed be lost due to the adoption of this technology, that will be offset by an increased need for other specialized workers. More mechanics, programmers and technicians will be needed to maintain driverless buses and keep them operating correctly.
However, so far, autonomous vehicles have proven to be safer than manned vehicles. That’s because they eliminate the “human error” factor common in many accidents. And while some people are still concerned about these vehicles’ reaction time, sensor arrays and vehicle safety technologies are improving continuously.
There are still, among other things, liability issues to be ironed out and there are too many public fears to be pacified. However, we can expect that eventually, driverless buses—like driverless cars—will be a common sight on our highways and roads.
One question is whether transit operators will adopt these technologies before people start using ‘robotaxis’. If not, won’t it be too late, at least in small and medium sized metro areas?
Since driver costs are a much greater component of total costs for buses compared with rail systems, bus operations should become much cheaper than rail operations.
It’s a given that congestion will increase, simply because it will be cheaper and easier to take a trip, whether it’s a bus or a car.
The roads will get completely clogged because everyone is suddendly taking cheap taxi trips (how much more would you use your car if you could drive to point B and have it disappear until you need again?) and the city will have to charge a congestion tax and create bus lanes, and people will move to buses for longer commutes because they’re going to be faster and not too pricey in comparison to cars.
Or they’re going to do nothing and people are just going to waste time until the city economy shrinks to a proper size.
So I think that even if transit adoption comes too late (which is likely in union-strong agencies) it can be fixed later if there is political will.
1) There is no connection between being autonomous and being electric. A bus could easily be one without the other.
2) Autonomous vehicles are (or will be) safer than manned vehicles. But they will be less skilled at reacting to unusual situations such as obstacles in the road. A human driver can know what the obstacle is and whether it’s safe to drive around or over or, or can honk at a stopped driver or call the police. Autonomous vehicles won’t be able to deal with any of these situations.
3) The main advantage of autonomous buses is saving the driver’s salary. This is not such an advantage in China where salaries are low.
1) true, and I think buses will stay diesel for quite some time longer than cars
2) transit operators could be better candidates than taxis because they can have personalized buses and centralized control centers allowing for manual rerouting around obstacles and construction sites if the navigator fails, or even low-speed remote control or on-hand staff (1 driver sitting in a car for 20 buses circulating in a given area? Way cheaper than 20!) for particular disruptions.
3) China is preparing for the future
The financials already mean that it’s insane to buy diesel buses for city bus duty. Electric buses universally have better TCO than diesel buses. Right now. Unfortunately this has not been recognized by most highly conservative city bus agencies.
UBI. Universal Basic Income. As neo-liberal capitalism crashes and burns around us, Star Trek economics will rise from its ashes. Ok so that’s hokey but really pretty much the only way forward. Too many robots too few “real” jobs. Anyway UBI is fast becoming a buzzword in economics. When a place like Switzerland places it on the ballot you know it is becoming mainstream.
So if I may be so forward, I would suggest you include the concept in your future writing on the topic of automation and the loss of jobs.
in Switzerland a referendum promoted by farmers against a law that forced them to vaccinate certain animals was on ballot.
It was the only voting theme on that ballot day and you can guess, the turn-out was record low.
So take switzerland ballots with a pinch of salt.
100k people in a population of 7 million to sign a piece of paper at a stand in the road aren’t too hard to find, especially for a trendy proposal like UBI.
I think UBI will be needed at some point, but we’re nowhere near. Maybe it will happen once an entire taxi fleet will be cleaned and serviced by robots.
Right now lots of personnel will be needed for that stuff, and the increased mobility and decreased mobility spending will lead to more activity in other sectors, like bars.
How many more people would go to the bar if they could jump on a very cheap taxi (because there is low traffic at night so no congestion charge) and go to the bar for a few hours and not worry about DUIs? Especially if they spared the money they’d spend on a car?
So it all evens out in the end.
Textile workers were all fired but western economies somehow went forward with low unemployment (the healthy ones, not the ones with corruption issues).
The mass unemployment and underemployment is not in the theoretical future; it’s happening now and has been since the 1960s when manufacturing jobs left the US. The rest of society just ignored the underemployment and poverty because they didn’t want to spend money to fix it. That doesn’t mean the problem doesn’t exist. What we’re looking at now is the potential spread of massive job losses from blue-collar jobs to white-collar jobs. Sure, a new industry might save us, but it hasn’t saved the manufacturing workers for forty years so why should it start now? Universal Basic Income is worth discussing now so that when people are ready to move forward with it, the public will be familiar with the concept and we’ll have worked through the tradeoffs of various implementation alternatives and perhaps seen some pilot projects. The Swiss plan could have been one early example, but Swiss voters decided not to go ahead with it. The concept is still worth serious considering though.
When the first driverless mass transit came on line in the 1950s many elevator operators lost their jobs.
yet somehow the US economy wasn’t wrecked by this loss of jobs.
I guess that rents didn’t have to include that guy’s wage anymore and people spent money elsewhere, plus there was growth.
In the National Transportation Safety Board report on the fatal smoke incident near the L’Enfant Plaza station on the Washington (DC) Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) Metro rail system, Safety Board chairman Christopher Hart stated, “The belief that trains cannot collide predictably and foreseeably led to the attitude that it doesn’t really matter what anyone at WMATA does because nothing can go wrong.” He was talking about Metro’s attitude since it began running in the 1970s. “That type of attitude clearly undermines the development of safety culture, and even feeds the belief that there is no need for a safety culture,” stated Hart. Moss said that “autonomous vehicles … eliminate the ‘human error’ factor common in many accidents.” That’s true enough, I expect, but things will go wrong, and a safety plan for autonomous vehicles that acknowledges that fact is essential.
In San Francisco there’s a story where a bus driver mentions to a passenger “I get paid $31 an hour. $1 is for driving the bus, $30 is for dealing with the people who ride the bus.” Basically including answering questions, dealing with rowdy passengers, etc etc etc. Would driverless vehicles simply mean replacing drivers with conductors?
The bus driver’s main job other than driving the bus is fare collection. Autonomous buses will have to have some sort of fare collection/verification system, either at the stops or on the vehicle.
I would expect calls for some sort of camera monitors on buses with “call boxes” for emergency situations. But right now millions of people ride on subways that basically have no accessible human driver as far as the passenger is concerned. Generally seems to work fine.
regional trains in switzerland are a good example too.
No staff is on them most of the time and the driver is not accessible.
They’re fully covered by cameras though.
here in Europe the driver mostly just drives the bus.
Tickets are not even sold on buses anymore.
Ticket inspectors and security guards will board autonomous buses randomly but it won’t be even half of them.
Driverless buses would probably get to stops better on time. I know when I take the bus it is always off schedule.
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I fail to see what we gain by eliminating drivers and replacing them with an army of IT and other technicians which typically earn more than a bus driver.
Right now the biggest cost is capital. A standard North American 40′ bus is about 560000 Canadian $. Then there’s fuel. Drivers salary are not that big of a deal.
All these experiments show is that if you put enough sensors, maintain them at great expense you will be able to send a bus at slower average speed. I could see potential in a closed BRT system.
There are too many issues that have to be resolved before we can get excited about this. The point of going autonomous should be to improve service and reduce costs. Right now it’s the opposite.