Right now, most self-driving vehicles are limited to operating under relatively strict conditions and locations; the majority of AVs require good weather and well-marked roads. But one autonomous vehicle, which hit the roads in Finland this week, is designed to go anywhere in any conditions.
It’s called Gacha, built by Finnish vehicle manufacturer Sensible 4, which focuses on self-driving car software for all-weather operation. According to the Espoo, Finland-based company, Gacha is the first autonomous minibus that can navigate both city streets and small, unmarked suburban roads under all imaginable weather and lighting conditions. The vehicle is now operating within Espoo, which saw snowfall on 43 days in January and February.
Gacha was created with the help of Japanese design house Muji, and its shape is inspired by the kind of surprise toys you can get from Kinder Eggs or vending machines. The minibus is designed to follow pre-planned routes as if it were on rails, always keeping its eyes open for car and pedestrian traffic. But those routes are not fixed. The bus can change its route based on user requests. For example, a person living half a mile from a route can make a request in an app to hop into the bus. Gacha will then optimize its route to pass by that person’s door, sending an alert so the passenger can be outside just in time. That’s a crucial feature for imagining a rational and convenient public transportation system based on autonomous vehicles. It also makes it possible to serve suburban areas that extend through larger territories, beyond your typical city bus route.
It’s a crucial feature for places that experience extreme cold, rain, or snow–and one major raison d’etre for Gacha, which is designed for harsh weather. That’s probably why the Finnish transportation authorities and the partner cities of Espoo, Vanya, and Hämeenlinna are enthusiastic about the tests, as Sensible 4’s chief operations officer Tommi Rimpiläinen tells me via email. “The authorities have provided us a license to drive autonomously in all public roads in Finland,” Rimpiläinen says. “They have also supported our extreme arctic condition testing by providing smart road infrastructure for self-driving vehicles in Lapland,” referring to E8, a connected road corridor in northern Finland that’s being used to test AVs and other smart infrastructure in extreme conditions by many European mobility companies.
Rimpiläinen says that, while the Gacha project has been a challenging one–especially since they worked with Muji to build the vehicle from scratch in little over a year–they were aware of the challenges and happy with the result. After testing in Espoo, the company is planning to roll out Gacha in Hämeenlinna, Vantaa, and Helsinki this year.