In Germany, the only driverless rail vehicles in service are those in Nuremberg, where several routes of the urban underground network are operated in a fully automatic mode. On all the other underground and urban railway networks or in the field of regional and long-distance transport services, automated trains have so far failed to achieve a breakthrough. According to developers and manufacturers, this is to change fundamentally over the next few years. The same applies to road traffic. In the Swiss town of Sitten, two autonomous minibuses have been in service since June last year (see “Regionalverkehr 5-2016”), and in December 2016 a minibus of Deutsche Bahn AG (DB) started service on premises in Berlin-Schöneberg. The so-called “Future Bus” manufactured by Daimler Buses is one size bigger; it was presented in July 2016 in Amsterdam (see “Regionalverkehr 5-2016”). This technology platform, which is based on a Mercedes-Benz Citaro, travels in a semi-autonomous mode and at a perceptibly higher speed on an express bus route to Schiphol airport in the Netherlands. Though still manned by a bus driver, the Future Bus covers the distance of 19 kilometres fully automatically.
Autonomous rail vehicles are comparatively easy to operate, at least if – as it is the case with underground railways – no other vehicles cross their paths. The computer-controlled underground railway vehicles in Nuremberg start moving as if by magic, slowing down and stopping at the stops; then the doors open and close again automatically. It is much harder to use driverless buses and minibuses on existing road networks. The vehicles, which are controlled by GPS, radar and camera systems, are expected to merge effortlessly with the flow of traffic. Moreover, they must detect the other traffic members and respond to their mobility behaviour, without however obstructing or even endangering them. The different speeds, directions of travel and sizes of the other traffic – from pedestrians and cyclists to lorries – do not make things easier. And it is likely to take some time before autonomous buses flow smoothly along with the rest of the general traffic. The so-called Smartshuttles in Sitten crawl along at no more than 20 kilometres an hour, and this mainly through pedestrian precincts. On the premises in Berlin, there is no other traffic apart from pedestrians and cyclists. And the Future Bus in Amsterdam travels on a special lane that is not shared by any car traffic or is separated by white stripes from the rest of the road network on crossings.
Developers, manufacturers, associations and transport authorities essentially agree that at least another 10 to 20 years will pass before autonomous buses can be reliably used for public passenger transport. Their present potential is mainly thought to be in the field of last-mile services in rural regions or within built-up residential areas, where automatic minibuses might provide the links to and from the urban railway or scheduled bus stops. In rural areas, this would enable bus services to focus on rapidly growing housing developments, whereas driverless minibuses would service remote settlements. Within built-up residential areas, autonomous shuttles might offer additional services especially to senior citizens or persons with restricted mobility.
The approach taken by Hamburger Hochbahn AG is pragmatic: As early as in 2021, automatic buses are expected to start services on several pilot routes through the city. This elevated railway company is also planning to operate the vehicles itself, and not to leave the market to any new providers or to vehicle manufacturers.
Reservations are being voiced by the Association of German Transport Companies (Verband Deutscher Verkehrsunternehmen, VDV). “Autonomous vehicles might become part of the public transport system – but they might just as well jeopardise much of the existence of today’s public urban and long-distance transport services. Any steps towards autonomous driving will automatically increase the attractiveness of private passenger cars and are therefore counterproductive for public transport services for the moment,” says the Association in a policy paper. If driverless cars or minibuses were to be extensively used, this might first cause the number of vehicles moving around in cities to shrink perceptibly. “The fatal thing, however, would be that the miles covered by passenger cars would at the same time surge, for instance because traffic would be shifted from public urban passenger services to private cars.”
Trapeze Group’s assumption is that vehicles driven by people will co-exist with driverless vehicles in the future and should therefore be integrally operated and optimised.
For this purpose, the manufacturer is partnering with BestMile. This Swiss start-up specialises in the management and optimising of autonomous vehicle fleets – and has, for instance, provided the mobility system of the Smartshuttles in Sitten. Together, the two companies plan to integrate all the aspects of autonomous vehicles seamlessly into the LIO operations control system of Trapeze in order to enable them to be operated together with existing conventional vehicle fleets without requiring any additional resources.
The LIO intermodal operations control system supports public transport authorities by providing technological, ecological and economic competencies. The integration of BestMile’s technology concerns passenger services and support, vehicle monitoring and application, passenger information through all channels, transfer protection, data gathering and reporting. All applications can easily be customised to specific needs in terms of service, operating regulations, number of passengers and IT environment. Trapeze offers planners and transport authorities an entirely novel tool with several software modules for actively supporting their decision-making. In the event of operating trouble or other related incidents, the LIO system will display not only operations-related information, but additionally propose intelligent corrective action and provide checklists as a function of the specific situation.
BestMile, a spin-off of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) in Lausanne, employs a core staff of 25 employees and has offices in Lausanne and San Francisco. Its business goal is to develop a cloud technology that utilises the full potential of autonomous vehicles to tackle the challenges of urban mobility. “Stand-alone robots” in this approach are merged into a smart and flexible integral mobility system. A fleet management platform ensures the link-up, operation and optimisation of any kind of fleet of driverless vehicles. The platform comprises both scheduled and demand response services and does not depend on any specific vehicle manufacturer. This allows customers to remotely control heterogeneous fleets consisting of autonomous vehicles of different types and brands. Using advanced algorithms, it optimises the dispatch of the vehicles and seamlessly ensures planning, dispatch and route finding as well as battery changes.
Since 23 June 2016, two Smartshuttles have been rolling fully automatically through Sitten, the capital of the Swiss canton of Valais. In a pilot project, they will continue to shuttle under a special permit through the old part of the town until October 2017. GPS, radar and sensors control the 4.8-long cabs on a defined and pre-programmed route. These electrically powered Smartshuttles, which are capable of transporting as many as 15 passengers, are operated by PostAuto Schweiz AG, the country’s largest bus operator. The vehicle manufacturer is the French company Navya. PostAuto is in charge of operations, safety and maintenance of the Smartshuttles. An operations manager dispatches them with the aid of the platform developed by BestMile. If necessary, he can immediately stop the vehicles on site or remotely. Specially trained safety drivers accompany the Shuttles, which no longer have any pedals or steering wheel.
BestMile and ETH plan to utilise the data gathered for further improving the algorithms of the fleet management system. PostAuto wants to find out whether it might be possible to service also remote locations with the Smartshuttles. PostAuto plans to present the project at the 8th Innovation Congress for Public Urban Passenger Transport (ÖPNV-Innovationskongress) of the German State of Baden-Württemberg, which will be held from 14 to 17 March 2017 in Freiburg (see page 38).
As yet, trial operation has encountered a number of complications: On 22 September 2016, services were interrupted after one of the two Smartshuttles struck the opened rear door of a parked delivery van, rupturing the glass of a window. It is likely that the cameras of the minibus had failed to detect the obstacle, and the safety driver who triggered an emergency stop did so too late.
Autonomous buses have been on the road also in Germany since the end of last year: On the EUREF Campus in Berlin-Schöneberg, Deutsche Bahn AG (DB) has been using the prototype vehicle of the start-up Local Motors since 19 December 2016 for testing bus services together with InnoZ, a research centre operated mainly by DB. The EUREF Campus is a plot of land measuring about five hectares on which companies and research facilities focussing on energy, sustainability and mobility have settled. Plans are to test autonomous driving during several months with a cab painted in ICE colours. A similar test has been under way since October in Leipzig on the premises of DB Schenker and with a vehicle of the EasyMile company. In both cases, employees can use the bus in their everyday activities in order to allow vehicle technology and operation to be tested under the most realistic conditions possible and to obtain customer feedback. These operating trials signal the start of various DB projects involving autonomous driving, and initial pilot projects in the public area are to begin as early as this year.
The Future Bus of Mercedes-Benz is equipped with the CityPilot, a radar, camera and GPS system of complex design that is based on the Highway Pilot used in the Mercedes-Benz Actros lorry. Additional functions have been added for using it in urban bus services. At the first stop along the high-speed bus route in Amsterdam, the driver switches to the semi-automatic mode at the push of a button. They can then let go the steering wheel and remove their feet from the pedals – with the bus now travelling on its own. The Future Bus sticks exactly to the centre of its 3.1-meter-wide lane, departing from it to either side by no more than 20 centimetres even when travelling at its top speed of 70 kilometres an hour. It stops fully automatically at stops if required. Then the doors will open and close again automatically before it continues its journey. In regular passenger services, the Future Bus is not yet allowed to drive autonomously. At present, trips are being made without passengers or for visitor groups only. Daimler Buses expects to obtain the relevant permit in the coming year at the earliest. The range of the bus is also still quite limited, and for ensuring the required level of safety, it continues to rely on separate bus lanes. Its use in road traffic alongside other traffic members is still a distant possibility. But the Future Bus supplies the manufacturer with crucial insights that are needed for the further development of driver assistance systems or semi-automation of driving functions.