Norway’s self-driving bus: a template for public transport?
Technology and Business
In this article, Alice takes a closer look at Norway’s autonomous bus and asks:
- What are the self-driving bus’s capabilities?
- Why this route?
- Is the future of public transport autonomous?
It’s the first of its kind in Europe and testing is already yielding positive results. So, will driverless public transport become the norm? And can we expect to hitch a ride on a driverless bus outside of Trondheim any time soon?
Public transport. Often the mere mention of it is accompanied by groans and laments over long travel times and needlessly complex routes. But when it comes to autonomous technology, vehicles which can carry multiple passengers to multiple destinations have huge potential for growth. Plus, with on-demand hop-on/hop-off services rather than the expense of personal ownership, more of us might get the chance to go for a ride with no driver.
Self-driving transport of this sort is currently being tested in Norway and even Prime Minister Erna Solberg has had a go on the revolutionary bus. Now being piloted in Trondheim, Norway’s on-demand driverless bus is already showing that flexible, autonomous travel on a public scale can play a role in our future. It might just make the concept of public transport more attractive too.
What are the self-driving bus’s capabilities?
Understandably, this trial has begun on a small scale, so the EasyMile self-driving bus on the road in Trondheim seats only six passengers, with a safety operator on board too. It travels at a speed of 16km/h and uses all the sensors we’ve come to expect – including GPS and Lidar – to navigate through the urban roads. It works with an on-demand system too so, interestingly, passengers do not merely wait for the bus to pull up at a designated point but instead call the bus, via an app, to their stop.
Rebecca Ronke, project lead at Applied Autonomy, says technical limitations were a challenge in setting up the pilot. “Due to the relatively low speed of the vehicle, we decided to only run on roads with a 30 km/h speed limit,” she explains. “This ensures that the bus can be integrated smoothly into mixed traffic, without holding up traffic and possibly causing potentially dangerous overtaking.”
Why this route?
When testing any autonomous technology, the route any vehicle follows is of vital importance. Factors such as the environments the technology will encounter, likely weather conditions and, in this case, the demand for a public service must all be considered. With all this in mind, testing Norway’s self-driving bus in Trondheim makes perfect sense.
The city’s university is known for engineering, so students may be more accepting of the new tech, and fairly reliable variation in weather provides a good base for testing the bus’ capabilities. The route was chosen to benefit local people too. Featuring some 20 stops which each have a maximum walking distance of 200 metres between them, the service runs from Trondheim Spektrum, an indoor arena, to the student union in Trondheim, running past the hospital. This means the route connects some key services for local people and connects to major transport hubs too. This generates a good supply of test riders for the project while making sure the service itself is useful. As Rebecca says, “the route brings real benefits to the local population and generates ample interest, giving us a chance to test the public response as well.”
Is the future of public transport autonomous?
Having been met with much enthusiasm, the biggest question now being asked as a result of this project is where do we go from here? The team behind the bus trial are sure that driverless public transport will soon become the norm. Rebecca explains, “As cities and populations grow, we simply cannot continue to follow past mobility strategies that have resulted in more and more congestion and pollution.
“To meet a changing population's requirements, public transport must become both more attractive and greener ”
“Autonomous transport, and especially an on-demand service as we implemented here, means that transport can become more sustainable by adapting to people's needs. In order for cities to fulfil their CO2 emission goals and meet a changing population's requirements, public transport must become both more attractive and greener – and we believe that services like the one in Trondheim are able to do just that.”
Though scheduled to run until the end of October, it will be up to the authorities in Trondheim to decide if they’d like the self-driving bus to become a permanent feature long this, or any other, route. The team is hopeful though. In Kongsberg, a similar pilot is now running as a full-time bus route and has had the added environmental benefit of enabling the local transport operator to replace two traditional diesel buses. It’s clear, then, that the idea of autonomous public transport is catching on.
And there’s much to suggest that it won’t only be on board buses that decision is being taken in favour of autonomous tech in years to come. Driverless aircraft and trains will no doubt become part of future transport solutions and shipping is already venturing into the world of driverless. Many are devoting research and investment to these projects but, for the moment at least, there is no question that Norway leads on the autonomous bus front. Rebecca adds, “our next goal is to take the safety operator out of the bus and enable remote safety supervision - this is unchartered territory, and we're going to run a first project this year.” We can’t wait to see what comes next.
Would you hop on the self-driving bus and trust it for a ride? Do you think public transport will be quick to go driverless? What changes would you like to see to Norway’s self-driving bus? We’d love to hear your thoughts, so drop us a message in the comments below!
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