The first presentation of the Alexander Dennis Enviro200 bus back in March already attracted a great deal of interest. Several videos of this autonomous bus were circulated on the internet. It is not the size of a slow moving minibus, but that of a real full-size city bus. The accelerator can be stepped on up to 80 km/h. Yet it was still a trial within a safe environment, without obstacles, on the way to the street where car wash services are located.
The project has since progressed a step further. In Birmingham, the vehicle demonstrated that it can avoid real obstacles and people. The bus has been deemed: “fit for service.” The municipality of Edinburgh where the bus – (in fact there are actually five of them) – will run next year from the Scottish capital to Fife, on the other side of the river Forth. It was the most read story on our website this week.
That’s not all that surprising. Self-driving buses are hip. Projects with these means of transport, most of which are electric, are spreading like wildfire. The USA and Singapore are leading the way, according to a recent KPMG report. But Europe is catching up: Berlin, Frankfurt, Hamburg, Tallinn, Helsinki, Drimmelen. These are all places where trials were started this year.
— Adi Gaskell (@AdiGaskell) October 16, 2019
But in the meantime there is also a lot of discussion about the practicality and necessity of these buses which cost several millions. The project in Scotland, for example, is receiving £4.35 million in funding. A project in Berlin that was started in August across a distance of about half a kilometer, together with a few other projects, costs more than €4 million. Are they worth it?
A spokesman for the Berlin public transport company BVG considers ‘the Seemeile Project’ to be a great success. “More than 7,000 passengers have already traveled with it and the residents in the area are happy with it,” says Markus Falkner. The problem is that the 7000 passengers were mostly ‘Schaulustige’ – sightseers who could just as well have walked all the way to the Tegeler See.
We mentioned earlier that this also applies to a similar project in Drimmelen that cost €200,000. This involved around 500 passengers, most of whom were sightseers. A project in Paris that was launched with a lot of fuss in 2017 was discontinued for this very same reason. During the first six months, there were around 30,000 people who were willing to take a ride. After that – when the novelty had faded away – it dropped to less than a thousand per month. They pulled the plug this year in August.
And the costs are not the sole problem. A project in Vienna has shown that. Like other self-driving buses, the vehicles from the French company Navya drove here at a snail’s pace of no more than 12 km/h. Nevertheless, it was still possible to drive into someone. Admittedly, that person was completely irresponsible. Wearing headphones and looking at her mobile phone, she herself drove into the bus. Yet it was enough to put a halt to the project.
Another trial in Schaffhausen, Switzerland, was suspended due to hardware and software problems. It shows the long way to go before affordable and safe autonomous buses are on public roads, and are also of real practical use to people who simply need to travel from A to B.
Is that a reason to stop working on these altogether? Of course not. It will probably take years before self-driving buses become commonplace. But something is learned with each project. The major leap forward when it comes to the buses that will be running in Scotland, is that they are big and fast. There are also many commuters on the road between Fife and Edinburgh. Therefore, they have the potential of serving a functional purpose.
It remains to be seen whether this will work in practice. It is a matter of trial and error for all the scientists, companies and governments involved, says the CEO of Stagecoach, the owner of the buses in Scotland. Ceo Martin Griffiths calls it a great learning process. He emphasizes that this is a pilot. However, if you look at the long term, self-driving buses will play a significant role. There is no doubt about that. For our senior readers: Barrie Stevens would say to candidates in the Dutch Soundmix Show: “Vooral doorgaan!” (‘Keep going!”)