Robot Bus Trial Succeeds… Mostly

A trial of robot bus fleets run simultaneously in several European cities is being hailed as a success despite some areas of concern.

The trial, orchestrated within the European Union funded ‘Fabulous’ project, saw three different robot bus solutions tested in Finland, Norway, Estonia, Greece and the Netherlands. Based on the results, proof-of-concepts for the management of autonomous fleets as part of the regular public transportation system have now been delivered, project organizers claim.

Over-taking

That said, it acknowledged some serious challenges to the technology remain. In the project, the target for the technology advancement was set beyond the current state of the art technology. Yet, it became clear that some of the most challenging technical requirements could not be met in mixed-traffic conditions, such as fully autonomous overtaking maneuvers.

The speeds of the pilot vehicles reached 30kmh (19mph) with passengers on board and with steep hills, as in Gjesdal, and in Helsinki’s busy urban environment. The organizers insist the capability to manage a fleet of autonomous vehicles in busy urban mixed traffic conditions was proven, as were the operations of a Remote Control Center at all pilot sites, monitoring the fleets. Improvements in localization technology of the robot buses allowed operations on routes that previously required additional landmarks or were considered completely unfeasible. Furthermore, the retrofitting of autonomous driving software in various ‘regular’ vehicles was validated and improved.

Prototypes

During the final field-testing phase, the selected robot bus prototypes were tested as small fleets of shuttles between April 2020 and March 2021. Each of the three suppliers chosen for this phase received up to €1M ($1.2M) to prepare pilots and validate their prototypes. The three supplier consortia, each composed of several companies representing six countries in total, were Sensible4-Shotl (Finnish–Spanish), Saga (Norwegian–Canadian–Dutch) and Mobile Civitatem (Estonian).

The project found that despite the COVID-19 restrictions, all six pilots were carried out according to plan involving two field tests per supplier consortium. A total of 2,807 passengers were carried onboard the robot buses and approximately 148,000km (8,700 miles) were driven in open road conditions. After each pilot, a pre-set list of nine functional requirements as well as societal, legal and technical maturity of the autonomous fleets were assessed by a seven-member evaluation team consisting of the procuring partners and the project’s technical partner, Metropolia University of Applied Sciences.

Project executives say that before solutions can be fully commercialized and implemented into the public transport systems, several legislative aspects and technical features need to be actioned. In Europe, more harmonized regulation is needed to facilitate implementation of robot bus pilots and the eventual integration of automated transportation in cities. In Estonia, Finland, the Netherlands and Norway, a regulatory framework facilitating automated transport is already in place, but its conditions and procedures vary widely. In Greece and Portugal, the project was a starting point to launch or refine such legislative processes however, in the latter, national exemption and permission procedures could not be met.

— Paul Myles is a seasoned automotive journalist based in Europe. Follow him on Twitter @Paulmyles_


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