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Automated Buses Are Here, Now We Have To Decide How They Will Reshape Our Cities

In Helsinki and Vegas, trials of a new kind of public transport highlights the benefits–and potential pitfalls–of automating our roads.

When a short trial of an autonomous bus first ran in Helsinki, Finland, in 2016, most riders saw it as a novelty. But by this fall, if you work in downtown Helsinki, you might start riding the city’s robo-bus as part of your daily commute. The city is one of a handful to launch a longer-term trial of the technology, running along a regular bus route.

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“If we want to get real data, we need to have it in an area where the same people will be every day,” says Harri Santamala, who directs a smart mobility program at Helsinki Metropolia University of Applied Sciences and is coordinating Sohjoa, a joint project that is testing the autonomous shuttles. “So we are now aiming toward the local people, feeding them to the tram or metro lines… We need strong, long-term experiences of how people will really use an autonomous bus, and what happens when the novelty value of the bus wears off.”

“We need strong, long-term experiences of how people will really use an autonomous bus, and what happens when the novelty value of the bus wears off.” [Photo: Sohjoa]
The tiny bus, which can hold 12 passengers and travels at a sedate seven miles an hour–slower than an average cyclist–runs on electricity. If someone cuts in front, it stops itself; like other autonomous vehicles, it holds the promise of reducing or even eliminating traffic deaths. In trials, a human is onboard in case of emergency, but in a driverless future, it will be cheap enough to operate that it can fill in transit gaps, helping people drive less. That time may be nearly here; cities just have to take a few more steps to understand how the technology can best be used.

There are challenges, particularly from other drivers. “The machine always follows traffic rules, and people often don’t,” says Santamala. Drivers don’t yet know how to interact with the vehicles.

“The machine always follows traffic rules, and people often don’t.” [Photo: Navya]
“These are slower-moving shuttles, and they’re very cautious when they detect a threat,” says Carrie Morton, deputy director of MCity, an urban test facility for autonomous tech at the University of Michigan, where another long-term trial of an autonomous shuttle will launch this fall, taking students and researchers between buildings on a public road. “There is some question whether traditional, manually driven vehicles will perhaps take advantage of that cautious behavior–for example, I can cut that vehicle off because I know it’s going to stop.”

Cities also have to figure out how their infrastructure should adapt. An autonomous bus could potentially drop off passengers directly where they need to go, like Uber, but like Uber, that might also require new space for stops. Roads might work better with a new lane for the buses. Technology like traffic lights could be connected directly with the buses’ operating system.

“Knowing this technology is progressing, we definitely want to be involved with its development and deployment so that we can learn from it.” [Photo: Navya]
Las Vegas ran a short trial of an autonomous electric shuttle–the first in the U.S.–in January 2017, running back and forth along a three-block route for 10 days, and plans to launch a second trial, likely connected to its traffic lights, in late summer or early fall. Nevada allows fully autonomous vehicles on roads. While the federal government is still working on its own regulations, Joanna Wadsworth, program manager for the transportation engineering division at the City of Las Vegas’s Department of Public Works, like others pioneering in the space, thinks that it may be “a year or two, if not sooner” before autonomous shuttles have regular permanent routes in the city.

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“Knowing this technology is progressing, we definitely want to be involved with its development and deployment so that we can learn from it, what may impact our roadway planning, our infrastructure–essentially, we’ll provide the ecosystem for these vehicles to operate,” says Wadsworth. “For these vehicles to be a true benefit I think it needs to be connected to our traffic signal system; it needs to be connected to our infrastructure.”

“These vehicles can provide first mile, last mile transportation to get you into a transit system that maybe would be challenging to have access to otherwise.” [Photo: Navya]
“I don’t think it will be long,” says Morton from MCity. “The reason you see us using this specific vehicle is because it’s low-speed, low-risk. So as the consumer becomes more aware and more comfortable with the technology, this is a really easy first step. These vehicles can provide first mile, last mile transportation to get you into a transit system that maybe would be challenging to have access to otherwise.”

The technology is still developing, and the trials will help manufacturers refine how the vehicles deal with challenges like weather (lidar, a laser system that acts as a sensor, struggles in snow, for example). But Navya, a French company that manufactures the electric shuttle that is being tested in Las Vegas, at the University of Michigan, and elsewhere, believes that the technology is essentially ready, and cities are also ready to begin testing it en masse.

“I think in 2018 we’ll have 50 shuttles running in the U.S.–that’s our ‘pessimistic’ objective,” says Pierre Elliot Petit, head of operations for Navya North America. “The optimistic objective is to have 100-plus shuttles running in 2018… What we can see with the RFPs is that people want to have long-term pilots. At first, the idea was to have a pilot for a week or two weeks. Now people are thinking because the technology is getting better and better, to have a pilot running for a year.” Navya plans to open a new factory in Michigan later this year to serve the growing North American market.

“We can introduce a new part of the public transportation chain which nobody can really provide today cost-efficiently with human drivers.” [Photo: Sohjoa]
For commuters, the technology is likely to provide a cheaper and more convenient way to get around, particularly if the shuttles eventually pick people up on demand, rather than running in a traditional bus-like route. “We can introduce a new part of the public transportation chain which nobody can really provide today cost-efficiently with human drivers,” says Santamala. “Automated, flexible, on-demand fleets are potentially easy to really integrate well with the tram, or metro, or big bus lines. With that, we can improve the service substantially.”

If it’s raining and cold outside and the robo-bus knows that you’re headed for an outdoor train station–but you’re going to miss the train–it could automatically take you to the next station so you could stay on the warm bus, for example. And these small adjustments to make public transportation less painless could get more people out of cars.

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“I think it will help people leave their cars outside cities,” says Petit, adding, “It’s a little like when Uber and Lyft deployed their technology, people were like, ‘How can I use that?’ Then it was like your private driver from point A to point B. Then you started to share the [Uber]. And now you will share a shuttle.”

About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley.

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