Autonomous Public Transit: Hitting the Streets

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4Q 2018 | IN-5271

Urban transportation is evolving with the advent of autonomous public pods, shuttles, and buses. Launches on public streets are already underway worldwide, from Norway to Florida. Additional efforts are developing for technology and regulatory capabilities, from Singapore’s secured test park to Japan’s transit preparations for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Passenger reaction has been positive to date, although there has been transportation union pushback.

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Safety, Access, and Schoolchildren


Regulatory differences often require the presence of someone in or nearby the vehicle to take over; this can mean a brake button, but no steering wheel or driver’s seat. Regardless, in the United States, buses involved in fatal crashes have decreased as of 2016 to a total of 227, per Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) analysis. However, Princeton University research found that, from 2002 to 2011, over US$4.1 billion was paid for casualty and liability claims, often out of pocket, for self-insured agencies.

High-density urban cities not only will require the rapidly growing shuttles as “feeder” vehicles to extend their reach to more citizens without losing money but also will need full-sized buses to address capacity challenges. Additionally, urban areas are already familiar with subways, trains, and light rail—transportation that is already highly automated. There is no singular approach, even within a country, and in the United States these regulations have largely been at a state level.

Babcock Ranch, Florida, is taking automation much further this school year than most with autonomous shuttles for schoolchildren. Working with Transdev, automated shuttles drive up to a dozen children at a time, with additional on-demand, Uber-like home pickup points in consideration.

In Good Company


San Ramon, California, began a commuter shuttle in April from Original Equipment Manufacturer (OEM) EasyMile, after the California Department of Motor Vehicles allowed permits for remote testing. EasyMile has already sold these shuttles for US$250,000 each to locations in 20 countries, from Asia-Pacific (APAC) to the Middle East and Africa to North America and the European Union. The company began working with Norwegian mass-transit firm Kolumbus on an autonomous bus service; however, regulation requires an employee on the slow-moving vehicle to operate a manual override brake button.

With the estimated largest pilot program in the United States, Las Vegas, Nevada, became an early adopter for public street deployment, with over 35,000 passengers to date and with a 4.5 out of 5 rating. The French company Navya began testing in the city about 18 months ago at the 2018 International Consumer Electronics Show (CES). Similarly, the City of Reno has partnered earlier this year with Electronic Vehicle (EV) bus leader Proterra, trialing on Virginia Street in conjunction with the University of Nevada, Reno’s Living Lab Coalition and a host of experts.

Capital Metro in Austin, Texas, began testing its autonomous shuttles with a staffer onboard for a year-long trial and is jointly working with two different companies on the technology. The city is also investigating longer-distance and larger self-driving buses with a vision plan expected in October.

Some areas of Switzerland utilize an autonomous EZ10 bus as a part of their regularly scheduled transit program; these buses only require an overnight charge of three to four hours. A supervisor can control the bus via a “game pad,” if needed, as they work through the process toward fully autonomous vehicles. Sion, Switzerland, began using BestMile’s PostBuses earlier this year. Dublin, Ireland, will begin trials next month of an autonomous EasyMile shuttle service from their convention center to the arena. OEM Mercedes-Benz has moved ahead with its Future Bus for an initial public trial in the Netherlands via Europe's longest Bus Rapid Transit (BRT). The vehicle is capable of driving through tunnels and recognizing and communicating with traffic lights and obstacles—including pedestrians. The bus stops automatically, opening and closing the doors on its own.

APAC also has a variety of autonomous transport vehicles in the works. Hino Motors has partnered with SoftBank in Tokyo on large minibuses that have an optional steering wheel for trips to the Haneda airport. Navya is also targeting Japan for university, airport, and shopping center routes. The country itself has big plans to support autonomous transit for the upcoming 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Even Baidu is launching in Japan in 2019 by partnering with SB Drive, a subsidiary of SoftBank.

Shenzhen, China, already began testing self-driving buses in partnership with Haylion Technologies. Baidu is working with King Long on their Apolong buses; they have built more than 100 buses already. Baidu’s Apollo, its autonomous platform, now offers enhancements such as facial recognition to identify tired drivers. The company also plans to add a safety model with Computer Vision (CV)CV software from Mobileye. Along with Advanced Driver Assistance Systems (ADAS) functionality, there are also no steering wheels or driver’s seats.

Singapore recently garnered attention for its Future Mobility Solutions site at Nanyang Technological University, where over 10 companies are testing their vehicles. This includes one from Navya and several from Volvo AB, which are coming in early 2019. The research team can operate the vehicles through autonomous software or through a video game–style handset.

More Money (Savings) But Still Problems


One challenge in many locations will be the effect over time on employment and on the need for retraining. Columbus, Ohio, won the U.S. Department of Transportation challenge two years ago, along with US$40 million to create smart technologies, which includes efforts with autonomous transit. However, the Transport Workers Union of America recently created a coalition in Ohio to try to prevent the impact to its estimated 17,000 bus drivers. The United States alone employs more than 150,000 transit bus drivers and close to 500,000 school bus drivers. It remains to be seen how private/public engagement can effectively address this need that extends across public transit and many other roles.

Full autonomy is not yet ready when it comes to concerns from the environment or the weather—heavy rain impacts capabilities in the Singapore trials and a wealth of pine trees has interfered with the GPS guidance system in testing in Europe. Other weather, such as heavy snowfall, must also undergo significant testing. Companies from Google to Baidu to Intel’s Mobileye are working on these challenges.

Security is another critical consideration. The public both inside and outside the transit vehicle must be able to place their faith in autonomous vehicles’ operations. As with autonomous cars, network security considerations remain with automated vehicles; this includes vulnerable software bugs as well as whether the architecture includes partitions between telematics and embedded mission-critical technologies.

Regulation has not yet caught up to developing capabilities. Many of the shuttles and buses are limited to short routes at lower speeds. Additionally, some regulators are discussing remote start/stop functionality requirements before allowing Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) Level 4 shuttles. Still, there are other forms of autonomous public transit, such as subways, trains, and light rail that have successfully operated on tracks for many years. Success depends on orchestrated support, from state and local authorities, transit firms OEM’s, and technology partnerships. Regardless, more autonomous shuttles and buses are expected to emerge on public roads in the next three to five years.