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The population and the economy in the Metropolitan region of Rotterdam and The Hague (MRDH) are on the rise. There are more and more train and subway passengers and the number of cars and trucks is steadily increasing. However, the railway and road networks cannot expand any further owing to a lack of space. In short: the city is getting bogged down. The solution is to use the infrastructure more efficiently. Autonomous driving plays a major role in this. 

To start with, there are certain problems associated with public transport. Which is something very important when it comes to the accessibility of a city. “If we operate with drivers,  a specified distance between each vehicle is required. On some routes, there can never be enough subways,” says Britt Doornekamp, advisor at MRDH on the economic business climate. Driving autonomously boosts the network’s capacity.

Moreover, the service schedule can also be extended with driverless vehicles. “No bus driver wants to run a shuttle service between the metro station and the airport in the middle of the night. An autonomous vehicle means that it is possible to operate a full night shift and assign that bus driver to other tasks.” Doornekamp sees these sorts of developments as steps that need to be taken. “That way cities remain accessible and public transport stays affordable.”

Improved traffic flow on roadways

Theo Noordman, senior business developer at Innovation Quarter, points out that cars that are on the road can be driven closer together if they drive autonomously. “Vehicles then communicate with each other, so number ten also notices when number one slows down. That’s not the case at the moment.” For example, this might make situations safer at traffic lights and roundabouts. “In the long run, it will lead to fewer incidents and an improved flow of traffic.”

That thoroughfare is crucial. Doornekamp: “Companies can save a lot of time if roads are less congested, especially where logistics are concerned. Autonomous vehicles can also improve traffic flow in city centers. “More and more vans are driving around delivering parcels. This sometimes causes traffic jams. If small autonomous vehicles or even drones deliver parcels, that frees up space on the roads.”

Step by step

It will take decades before cars, subways and trains will be able to run fully autonomously. “We’re working on a step-by-step plan. Step 5 is fully autonomous driving. At the moment, we are more or less at step 2. That’s comparable to adaptive cruise control,” Noordman explains. In steps 3 and 4, the vehicle learns more and more how to react to what is happening on the road.

The MRDH has made €15 million available for further research and testing. They are financing approximately eight projects over a period of four years. “The €15 million is co-financing. As MRDH, we finance 50% of the projects. The other 50% must be funded by other interested parties, such as municipalities and transport companies,” says Doornekamp. That means a total of €30 million will be invested in the region.

Busy hub

It is precisely in the Metropolitan region that this investment is so vital. The region is one of the busiest hubs in North-Western Europe in terms of both freight transport and passenger transport. According to Noordman and Doornekamp, cooperation between various parties in the region is progressing smoothly. “There is a great deal of willingness for developing this with each other. Among companies as well as public authorities. Moreover, TU Delft is also in the region. That’s where a huge amount of research is being done in this field,” Doornekamp says. “The expansion of transport in the region ensures that we can scale up projects effectively here,” Noordman adds.

The final stretch

The pilot projects are now mainly focusing on autonomous vehicles for the final stretch from a bus stop, subway or train station to their destination. This complements public transport. For instance, the Haga Shuttle was introduced last year in May. This autonomous vehicle runs from the Leyenburg bus stop to the hospital, approximately 200 meters. Starting this year, the same type of shuttle will probably run at other locations as well, such as Zoetermeer and Leidschendam Voorburg. A feasibility study or implementation plan is currently being drawn up for most of these pilots.

The Haga Shuttle is the only one on the road in the metropolitan region at present. There are also buses of this kind driving around in other parts of The Netherlands. At Esa Estec in Noordwijk, for example. The Haga Shuttle project was set up by the HTM transport company, Rebel and The Future Mobility Network. The minibus drives 5 kilometers per hour and scans the area to see if there are any obstacles or people on its route. There is a specially trained steward in the minibus who escorts passengers and can intervene if necessary.

Investment for change

“The market is not yet tapping into this application, which is why we are doing it,” says Alwin Bakker, founder of The Future Mobility Network. “The shuttle is really a godsend for elderly people and pregnant women, for one thing. These are people who regularly have to go to hospital and who have poorer walking skills.”The company invests in innovations that are still in their infancy. This is how they want to bring about real change. Bakker and his company regularly give advice on mobility. “But we don’t just sell a statement. We want to make an impact. That’s why we are making genuine investments in future means of transport.”

Baker acknowledges that this plan will take a lot of time and effort. “One of the things we need to do is get the stewards trained. Aside from that, we did need approval from the Netherlands Vehicle Authority (RDW), of course, before the vehicle was allowed on the road,” he says. The minibus has been extensively tested at the lab. “These include simulations of extreme conditions such as snow,” Noordman explains. “That probably only happens a few days a year. Nevertheless, the vehicle should be prepared for everything.”

Learning by doing

The fact that the shuttle is now actually being used is also a big help to the research, according to Doornekamp. “We’re now running into things we wouldn’t otherwise have come across so quickly,” she says. For example, there is a construction site along the route of the Haga Shuttle. The minibus also has a sensor on top. Which means it saw a ten-meter-high crane at the construction site as a potential hazard. So then it stopped. “You can’t make up something like that beforehand. As a consequence, the parties involved can now modify the software again, which makes the vehicle progressively smarter,” Doornekamp explains.

In using the minibus, research is also being carried out on how other road users respond to the vehicle. Doornekamp: “People react differently in a vehicle when there’s no driver at the wheel. They then fear that the vehicle will do unexpected things.” This is why the behaviour of passengers and other road users around the minibus is monitored. “In turn, this data is used so that the minibus can interact more easily and effectively with traffic.”

Man and machine on the road together

In Bakker’s opinion, people respond positively and seem to know how to handle a minibus. “People are not really reluctant to use this kind of vehicle. We were briefly afraid that people might get in the way or jump in front of the vehicle, but that just doesn’t happen. It’s a match between humans and robots that we hadn’t previously encountered.”

Shuttles like the Haga Shuttle are very important as far as Bakker is concerned. “There will always be people who don’t entirely trust the technology or who are afraid that jobs will disappear. But that should not stop society from continuing to innovate. This connection between a bus stop and a key place like a hospital is in fact an addition to public transport. It does not cost jobs, but creates new ones. It also makes the city more liveable.”

Off the beaten track

Despite this, he believes that companies and governments are reluctant to innovate on an incremental basis. “As a society, we are merely considering what already exists. We don’t feel free enough to think outside of the box. We never dare deviate from existing revenue models. That’s a shame. Because it is only when we veer off the beaten track that truly wonderful innovations emerge.” Bakker claims to have struck up a partnership with Rebel and HTM where there is room for innovative thinking.

The first year of the pilot projects sponsored by the MRDH has now come to an end. Over the next three years, much more research will be carried out on the development of autonomous vehicles. According to Doornekamp, it is important not to lose sight of the end goal in this respect. “Autonomous driving is not a goal in itself. We want to ensure that people get from A to B as quickly, smoothly and safely as possible”. There is probably still room left for drivers as well.

Perhaps we might discover during the research and pilot projects that a driver isn’t completely indispensable. Maybe because the vehicle still has to be driven in some way. Or perhaps for the more human side. He or she can guide people and chat with them if they are open to that,” she says. “Much is technically achievable. But it remains to be seen as to what extent we actually want this to happen.”