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Boring. This is how I would describe driving the world’s first self-driving bus service, launched for public use in Scotland this month. And that is precisely the point. This bus, driven by computers, not people, is like any other bus you’ll take to work or the shops. Yet its plethora of sensors, cameras and computers make this seemingly boring journey a major technological milestone for public transport.
I took the bus on a media test day, but five of these self-driving buses are now in full, public, scheduled service, taking passengers on a 14-mile route through the iconic Forth Road Bridge, just outside the Scottish capital of Edinburgh. It is the first autonomous bus service on public roads anywhere in the world, and the buses must navigate the dangers of public roads, including other traffic, traffic lights, cyclists and pedestrians.
The organization CAVForth (the CAV part stands for “connected autonomous vehicles”) is leading the project and says the main benefit of its autonomous fleet will be safety. With human error at the root of most traffic accidents worldwide, self-driving vehicles should be a safer presence on the roads – on-board computers don’t tire, drive drunk and not distracted by roadside advertisements, children shouting behind their backs, ringing the phone, or trying to eat a particularly large sandwich.
CAVForth also expects a 20% reduction in fuel consumption, thanks to the more efficient driving that computer systems can achieve. This is aided by buses communicating with traffic lights and being alerted to upcoming red lights – vehicles can adjust their driving speed and proceed more efficiently. Although the current fleet of five buses is based on existing diesel-powered vehicles, plans include electric-powered models to further reduce emissions.
Although the bus is fully autonomous, you’d be forgiven for not really recognizing it as such. You will find an ordinary steering wheel in front and behind, a driver who will undoubtedly look like he is driving the vehicle as usual. UK law states that even fully autonomous vehicles must always have an “operator” present who can take manual control, if needed.
CAVForth’s research among local groups also suggests that the public still wants the perception of safety that comes from seeing a real person in charge of the vehicle. A second person will also be on board: a “bus captain”, who will take fares, assist with luggage and generally facilitate bus journeys for the public.
The buses are equipped with lidar, radar and camera sensors to “see” traffic, cyclists or other obstacles in all directions. All of this data is combined to enable the bus’s self-driving system developed by UK-based Fusion Processing. And in addition to traffic light connectivity, the route has been updated with updated road markings to help bus sensors see more clearly, plus additional CCTV for monitoring the buses.
Getting on the bus felt pleasantly normal, like I was just being taken to a press event, rather than the bus trip being the event itself. I almost forgot the bus was self-driving, and with the safety driver behind the wheel, I can’t imagine many people feeling uncomfortable with the idea of a computer doing the driving.
Assuming the first launch is successful, CAVForth plans to expand the route in 2024 and add more vehicles, including the new electric models.