The media circus around driverless cars and their safety and ease of use could be distracting us from a more realistic technology — driverless buses. These are already running in several locations. In California, a bus made by French company EasyMile is due to come into public service in the next year. There have already been several demonstration runs in Canada.
At London Heathrow, four-person driverless pods have been shuttling passengers between Terminal 5 and a car park since 2011, which in driverless technology terms is practically the Jurassic age. Another company, May Mobility, runs self-driving passenger shuttles in Detroit and Columbus, Ohio.
Modern bus travel lacks the glamour and comfort of driving or flying. But companies are hoping driverless technology will be the key to getting millennials and the middle classes back on board, with better facilities, more space and more frequent services. Going driverless could make buses more efficient, comfortable and cheaper to run, and change them from a tired last-resort mode of transport to one of the best ways of getting around.
Running buses at a lower cost could even bring back routes that are deemed uneconomical, particularly in rural areas such as those in the four western provinces, where Greyhound has cancelled all its routes. Partnerships between rural and urban areas could see cheap routes subsidizing journeys in less-populated areas.
The first step may be to reimagine the bus entirely. Smaller, more frequent buses are less cumbersome on city streets and narrow rural roads, and mean customers don’t have to wait as long, but they are more expensive to run if they all need drivers.
Reilly Brennan of Trucks, a San Francisco-based venture capital fund that specializes in transport, says autonomy is the “perfect solution.”
“The larger fleet providers are either going to have to make acquisitions or have to do some of this technology themselves, because the model is in many ways more efficient to have smaller, automated vehicles replacing the large vehicle routes,” he says.
Vehicles that run on predictable routes are easier to automate. A key stage in the development of self-driving software is mapping the routes, which enables vehicles to predict hazards, and identify road features such as traffic lights, roundabouts and junctions.
Urban bus routes tend to be low speed, and the technology is even easier to develop if features such as a dedicated lane and sensors on street furniture are added.
“If you make the decision to go on the same route over and over again, you can get really proficient. So you can get increasingly better levels of automation. Then, you can take it a step further because you can put sensors within the infrastructure,” Brennan says.
The Heathrow pods run on a segregated guideway, with no other traffic around.
But the real winners of the second age of the bus are likely to be established companies, who have long experience running fleets and own infrastructure such as bus stops, shelters and depots. They also have the staffing levels, financing and business experience to run a transport organization, safely carrying thousands of people each day.
Chris Heiser of Renovo, a California company that provides self-driving software, says established companies that had been “left for dead” now had a “huge” structural advantage. “Those companies are going to be around for a really long time, and they will be the long-term beneficiaries of automation technology,” he said.
This includes bus firms as well as car companies with large fleets, such as Hertz and Avis.
One established bus company exploring autonomous technology in the U.K. is Stagecoach, with a project on Scotland’s Forth Road Bridge due for 2020. In contrast to the futuristic pod model, its plan involves using a standard single-deck Stagecoach bus to run a public commercial service to level four autonomy — the stage below level five (understood to be the level at which a vehicle could safely pilot itself).
It will have a safety driver who will take over at challenging points, but will be mostly autonomous. Sam Greer, engineering manager, says: “We don’t know how our customers are going to react to being in a bus where the driver isn’t in full control 100 per cent of the time. How are other road users going to react?”
For long-distance buses, companies are looking at a part-driver, part-autonomous model. But they are also asking whether the back-up driver needs to be on the bus. German company FlixBus, which runs inter-city routes in Europe and the United States, is considering technology involving a virtual driver, who could take control from home or the office. Once on the motorway, the self-driving technology would take over.
You basically can have a coffee at home while controlling buses through VR
Daniel Krauss, CEO, Germany’s FlixBus
Daniel Krauss, co-founder and chief information officer, thinks this hybrid model could be less than five years away, but the challenge is finding the right partner to provide the technology. The industry’s obsession with cars means finding a bus specialist is a challenge. Manufacturers are still focused on “where they can make the most money,” he says. “I think you’ll always see a slight advantage in technology adoption in cars and taxis than buses and trucks.”
There are other challenges with long-distance buses. The journeys are less predictable, with drivers charged with making more decisions, such as which exit to use from a motorway in order to avoid traffic.
But the potential benefits are significant. It could minimize hazards such as road-weary drivers, and could mean staff on board dedicated to customer service. “You basically can have a coffee at home while controlling buses through VR,” he says. “You may have more space in buses and increase the space for the customers. You could take the resources and distribute it differently, so you have more in-person stuff only focusing on serving the customers.”
The coffee-sipping VR bus driver and his pampered passengers seem a far cry from today’s long-distance coach services. Companies are determined to show their buses of the future are a force to be reckoned with. They currently suffer from “stigma” of being “inflexible and old-fashioned,” says Stagecoach’s Greer. “We want to demonstrate that it’s not. We can be at the cutting edge of technology.”
— with files from Financial Post