There’s plenty of buzz around autonomous vehicles being the future of mobility – every commuter’s saving grace. It’s glamorous to imagine drivers relaxing behind the wheel while their cars navigate rush hour traffic without any human assistance. What’s less glamorous is the gridlock itself – a larger issue that won’t be solved by deploying fleets of self-driving single-occupancy vehicles (SOVs). Out of the limelight, autonomous buses are poised with huge potential to benefit the public. Considering their current trajectory, smarter urban transit is an achievable reality.
In the past year, we’ve seen big players throw their hats into the ring of self-driving buses. In July, Mercedes-Benz successfully tested its semiautonomous “Future Bus” on a 12-mile route in Amsterdam. In Elon Musk’s Master Plan, Part Deux, he claims that Tesla is in the early stages of developing “high passenger density urban transport” that will be unveiled in 2017. Local Motors harnessed the power of IBM’s Watson to create Olli, a self-driving electric mini-bus that can be summoned on-demand, similar to ride-hailing apps like Uber and Lyft. Then in Finland, EasyMile’s EZ10 electric mini-bus made its public debut on the streets of Helsinki, where vehicles are not required by law to have a driver. These buses are still in a trial period, but they could be considered as a possible extension of the country’s public transport system in the future.
While those are all really neat developments, what’s in it for the public? Is a bus that drives itself really going to change anyone’s life, apart from the driver of the bus? If properly implemented, yes. The impacts of autonomous driving technology can reach so much further than the smart vehicle itself. When a network of connected, self-driving buses is working together succinctly, everyone benefits.
- More reliable – Gone will be the days of padding on an extra half hour of travel time to account for late buses. From what we’ve seen thus far in self-driving bus technology, you can expect public transit to become a lot more reliable. With a connected system, the buses could assess traffic conditions and ridership across the fleet and adjust in real time to maintain schedules. If rush hour is heavier than usual, or certain buses are packed from an event, extra vehicles could deploy in order to prevent a bottleneck. These buses would provide transit agencies with mountains of data that could be used to optimize bus schedules and create the most efficient system possible. As IBM explains, Olli uses “cloud-based cognitive computing capability of IBM Watson Internet of Things (IoT) to analyze and learn from high volumes of transportation data.” Learn is the key word here. Buses with self-driving technology are smart and will only get smarter as time goes on.
- Safer – Our instincts, for now at least, say not to trust a vehicle without a driver. A lifetime of experience tells us that a human behind the wheel is normal. It’s safe. But here’s the thing: you probably won’t see a public bus without a bus driver anytime soon. Self-driving buses will still need operators in case of emergency and to monitor any circumstances that are beyond the capabilities of a computer. Of course, that means bus drivers will need to be trained in operating the new technology, or new drivers with the proper expertise will likely replace them – a disappointing reality. If we’ll still have drivers, then why not just let them drive? Autonomous buses like the Mercedes-Benz Future Bus are equipped with long- and short-range radar to detect pedestrians and vehicles, almost a dozen cameras to scan the road and its surroundings, and a satellite-based differential GPS system. Combined, these technologies paint a picture with pinpoint accuracy. Blind spots don’t exist. Not only can they see more of their surroundings and farther distances than we can, but buses like Olli have a faster reaction time than any human. Not to mention that 94 percent of vehicle crashes in the U.S. can be attributed to human error. Seems like a good reason to start adjusting our instincts and learning to trust this technology.
- Reduced Emissions – Self-driving buses have the potential to reduce emissions both directly and indirectly. The Future Bus runs on diesel fuel, but its optimized acceleration makes it more fuel-efficient than the average bus. For instance, it can communicate with connected traffic lights from up to 200 meters away, allowing it ample time to adjust its speed and come to a smooth stop. Other autonomous bus developments use alternative sources of energy, like electric power. Either way, the output of emissions is reduced. Then indirectly, with fewer vehicles on the road we’d see decreased emissions and a positive impact our urban environment. Cleaner air affects the entire public.
- Less Congestion – Compared to SOVs, buses transport commuters more efficiently in large quantities. If our public transit system were more efficient and reliable, it would encourage greater use, resulting in fewer vehicles on the road. Consumers like to dream about the prospect of owning a self-driving car, but the congested state of our urban landscapes is a huge reason why autonomous buses are a more worthwhile development than autonomous SOVs. No one likes to sit in traffic, whether or not your car is doing the driving for you. Even if transit agencies couldn’t invest in an entirely autonomous fleet of buses, smaller-scale shuttle solutions similar to Olli or the EZ10 can fill the gaps in our current transit systems.
Looking beyond the prospect of autonomous, fixed-route public buses, there is additional opportunity for on-demand bus services like Bridj to leverage self-driving technology and increase transit efficiency even more. Bridj uses a fleet of flexible mini buses to create “pop-up urban infrastructure,” with the ability to transport more people than a carpool service like UberPOOL (though still fewer than a public bus). Then, as TNCs begin to deploy their own technology, we may also see the rise of autonomous personal rapid transit. In September, Uber launched a self-driving pilot program in Pittsburgh, and Lyft president John Zimmerman has claimed that the company will likely roll out semi-autonomous Lyft cars by 2017. Ideally, these on-demand services would supplement smart public transit, not replace it. Buses are still the most efficient way to transport large numbers of people on the road, but TNCs could help to alleviate first-mile/last-mile problems. Whether public and private will work together or not, these developments by Uber and Lyft make the need for smarter buses even more urgent.
The legal landscape for autonomous vehicles varies significantly from state to state — a source of frustration for innovators in the space. However, the federal government recently took a step toward standardizing that legal patchwork in hopes of making U.S. roadways safer. With support from the Obama administration, the U.S. Transportation Department issued voluntary guidelines for automakers to self-certify the safety of their autonomous vehicles. Many giants in the automotive industry are glad to see the government making a conscious effort to advance the autonomous car outlook. This comes not long after the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) updated their policy on autonomous vehicles, committing $4 billion over the next 10 years to accelerate the development and adoption of safe vehicle automation.
As long as policies continue to move in the current direction, signs point to smart, connected public transit systems outfitted with fleets of self-driving buses. The technology is poised and ready, so while lawmakers work to clear the air around automated vehicles, and the public adjusts to the concept and is further educated – which is much easier said than done – we’ll be excitedly watching and waiting.
Please note that this article expresses the opinions of the author and does not reflect the views of Move Forward.