From Science Fiction to Reality

Autonomous vehicles have been a part of science fiction and pop culture for decades, but now they are finally becoming a reality – And you’re invited for the ride.

Practically every major car manufacturer, and many new rivals, have announced that they will get autonomous cars to the consumer market within the next three to four years and are pouring billions of dollars into making this goal a reality.

Google, although not a car manufacturer, has been testing its vehicles in the streets of California for several years now and launched a new company called Waymo in 2016. Waymo, which partnered with Chrysler, is now testing their technology in Phoenix, Arizona in their first public trial.

In Sweden, Volvo is testing its autonomous vehicle technology in the city of Gothenburg, where it plans to give a hundred vehicles capable of autonomous driving to consumers hands starting from 2017. During the multi-year trial Volvo will gather data on real user experiences.

In Finland, VTT (Technical Research Centre of Finland Ltd) has been testing their autonomous vehicles, nicknamed Martti and Marilyn, in road traffic conditions and developing solutions on how they could communicate with each other, with other vehicles, and the surrounding infrastructure. Technology and solutions developed here promise to make future trips safer for both passengers and other road users by allowing the cars to receive and share information about their surroundings with each other.

There are numerous other ongoing trials, tests and studies around the world. Clearly the race is on to get autonomous vehicles to the market as fast as possible.

Not just private cars

When we think of autonomous vehicles, we probably think of something that looks very similar to current private cars on the market, with the exception that you can take your hands off the wheel and read a book while on your way to work – as illustrated in this concept from Volvo.

But private cars are not the only vehicles being automated. Autonomous trucks are also being developed and autonomous vehicles have been in use in mining and cargo handling for a while now. Autonomous ships are also in the works, along with autonomous delivery drones. However, unless you work in the mining or shipping industry, the autonomous vehicles that have the most relevance to you and I, in addition to private cars and taxis, are in all likelihood autonomous buses.

Autonomous public transport is expected to open up completely new possibilities to moving people around. They would allow for far greater flexibility in route choice, blurring the line between private and public transportation. An early example of this was the popular but short-lived Kutsuplus service operated by the Helsinki City Regional Transport Authority. Users would log on to the service and tell from which bus stop they’d like to be picked up from, at what time and what their desired destination was. The service would calculate the optimal route on the fly and a minibus would pick you up at the specified time, picking up and dropping off other passengers along the way. It was much like uberPOOL or Lyft Line, but for public transit.

From the user perspective Kutsuplus service was a great success. It got excellent feedback, it’s user base increased steadily each month, eventually reaching over 30 000 registered users, and it was an important addition to services available, especially for senior citizens and families with small children. But after only three years, it was shut down at the end of 2015. At the time, it proved too expensive to maintain, and the service needed to be heavily subsidised. Each trip cost 5.5€ (6.4 USD) to a user, but even at the end of the trial each trip was subsidised by more than three times that. Though the amount of subsidy per trip fell dramatically over the years, the service ran with a fleet of only 15 vehicles and would have needed hundreds or even thousands more to reach a scale big enough to be profitable, and so, at the end of 2015 the service came to an end. It did, however, prove that these new modes of public transport are desirable, viable and feasible, as long as they reach a big enough scale.

New opportunities, new challenges

Autonomous vehicles could prove to be a key solution in bringing these types of flexible public transit services back and even give birth to completely new ones. Autonomous vehicles will most probably be electric, reducing the cost of maintenance (electric vehicles have less moving parts than traditional combustion engines) and fuel costs (electricity is cheaper than petroleum-based fuels). In addition, they would have no driver, cutting the running costs even further.

They also have a key role in making our cities more liveable. So far cities have been battling congestion and air pollution caused by cars mostly by making it more cumbersome or expensive to use them, with little success. Autonomous public transport could help solve these issues, since it would allow for more flexible and convenient ways for people to get around, hopefully reducing the number of trips made by private vehicles, thus helping reduce congestion and air pollution. Now that autonomous vehicles are seemingly right around the corner, cities and governments need to start preparing for the transition.

However, there are still many issues to solve before we will see fleets of autonomous buses driving around city streets. If, for example, there is a construction site ahead that the autonomous bus does not know how to navigate around, who does the bus ask advice from, or give the control to, if there is no driver physically present? And what if a sensor on the bus fails and the bus is unable to continue its journey, because it can no longer sense what’s happening around it? To solve these issues, we need robust and reliable systems that allow for the remote operation and driving of these vehicles when necessary.

Autonomous vehicles are also a completely new experience for passengers, other road users, traffic operators and even city and government officials. It is important to understand their needs in this changing landscape, so we can design solutions that take those needs into account. Passengers need to feel that these vehicles are safe to use and government officials need proof that they truly are.

Join the ride

These are among the many issues that the team working in ROBUSTA are studying and developing novel and robust solutions around. We hope to speed up the transition to a more sustainable future where autonomous transportation is safe, efficient and a pleasure to use.

We will run the first public trial of a remotely driven semi-autonomous bus in the streets of Helsinki later in the project and we welcome you to participate in the unique passenger experience. We will announce specific dates later, so stay tuned!

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Ossi Korhonen, Demos Helsinki

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