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Self-driving electric buses of all sizes, a green light for public transport, less congestion in the cities, improved timetables in rural areas – in short: a better quality of life through improved mobility. Will this be the picture for public transport in 2040? Only if the opportunities now being offered are properly exploited, say futurologists.

Bus service on demand

13. June 2040, 7.30 a.m.
A demonstratively bored Ben assures his mother that he has remembered everything and calls into the room: “A bus to school!” In the corridor the twelve-year old puts on his backpack,locks the front door behind him and goes out on the street. Mia, the voice-assisted digital assistant in the apartment has noted Ben’s request and relayed it to the municipal transport company, together with all the necessary data. And so, after a wait of just one and a half minutes, a small, driverless bus arrives with complete reliability and stops in front of Ben. The doors open and Ben greets his classmate Emma. While he is still yawning the door-mounted passenger recognition system has registered Ben’s presence from the chip card in his purse. This enables the company to update the invoicing data for Ben’s family. The bus quietly begins to move, taking its place in the moving traffic and travels the two kilometres to Goetheplatz, where Emma and Ben transfer to a regular bus which brings them and some 50 other passengers, most of them schoolchildren, to the school. With its electric motor it virtually drives itself, and very quietly too. There is still a driver in the cab, who ensures that any unforeseen actions by car drivers in the city traffic do not adversely affect the bus systems. This should soon change, due to the increasingly numbers of cars that prevent their drivers from controlling their speed. Using 5 G networks, the vehicles are provided with information about speed limits, which are adjusted in response to the traffic situation at any particular time. This makes driving much safer than it used to be. Drivers cannot travel faster than is permitted by artificial intelligence. Emma and Ben are completely unconcerned about the fact that the small bus that takes them from their homes to Goetheplatz has no driver. The numerous sensors in the vehicles and in the infrastructure, as well as the central, decision-supported control system, ensure that they can find their way and communicate reliably with the other driverless delivery vehicles and taxis. The volume of cars has declined substantially over the past few years in the suburb, with the result that very few cars with drivers at the wheel can now be seen on the streets.

The buzzword “autonomous driving” refers in particular to the development whereby humans have largely or completely handed over control of the various aspects of locomotion to the means of transportation. This has taken place in a number of stages, the first of which became reality back in 2018: for example with the introduction of systems to assist with congestion, turning and maintaining distances, or even autopilots, which improve driving safety by relieving drivers of various routine tasks. At the more advanced stages of “highly automated” or “fully automated driving” the driver can be dispensed with entirely, because the vehicle is so “smart” that its safety can be relied upon in virtually any situation. However, these stages also present a challenge with regard to ethical issues and questions of liability. This is because there will still be pedestrians or cyclists in the future, which fully automated systems will have to take into account. Without the need for drivers, mobility as a business model will become much more cost-effective because “fully automated driving” will drastically reduce not only the personnel costs but also the economic risks of mobility such as traffic accidents. Conventional private cars and taxis with drivers at the wheel are therefore on the way out.

Artificial intelligence provides greater safety and reduces risks

When alighting from or changing buses Ben and Emma are again subtly registered by the PRS. If parents want it to, the system can report immediately to Mia with details of the route covered. Mia can communicate the information via a loudspeaker in the living room or simply register on a mobile terminal to allay any concerns that parents may have.

Here too manual driving has long since been supplanted by partial automation. The days are gone when a driver could arbitrarily determine the speed of a car with having regard to the environment or surroundings, even if he were not permitted to. Sensors and limiters automatically ensure that, at any point on the regulated highway, no vehicle can exceed the safe speed for the particular situation, as determined by artificial intelligence.

Driver-controlled cars will mainly be used to maintain individual links with places in rural areas. For several years now parking at the side of the road has been completely abolished, in particular because of the increasing trend for installing solar cells in the highway surface in areas receiving a lot of sunlight. These cells ensure that the charging points for buses literally receive power at the same level. Consequently stopping is only for a very short time, to allow passengers to board or exit the bus, or for the delivery or collection of goods. Under normal circumstances in the city cars are parked in designated spaces close to living accommodation, or in underground or multi-storey car parks.

Energy directly from the street

In contrast, buses operate day and night, unless they happen to be pausing briefly to recharge their batteries or if there is no demand for them early in the morning. They either have dedicated lanes which also house control elements and the inductive charging infrastructure, or have an unconditional right of way at all those points where the roadway is shared with individual traffic.

There is no longer an instrument panel in the large bus that brings Ben and Emma to their school. Theoretically it could cross the city without a driver if all the points on through roads where conflicts could arise between artificial intelligence and human spontaneity were to be eliminated. Instead of using a steering wheel and pedals, in an emergency the driver can intervene by means of a tablet computer. Navigation and steering controls can be undertaken by means of an easy-to-use head-up display in the windscreen

A separate track for express buses

Ben’s mother Marion leaves home shortly after him. She cycles the few kilometres to the BRT terminal (Bus Rapid Transit). Here she makes use of a locker, operated by an app, where she can store her bicycle to protect it from theft and the weather. An express bus, running on a dedicated track and powered by a hybrid, natural gas or a by now largely economical hydrogen unit brings her to the nearby city.

For BRT vehicles hydrogen has proved its effectiveness as a power source for longer journeys, now that the refuelling process has been made much easier. The system has a viable future because it is considerably cheaper and faster to implement than using rail vehicles, which are not as flexible as buses. The buses are automated when running on their own trackway, but can be operated off-track by a driver in less built-up and less well connected areas. They also frequently operate in suburbs where a larger number of more unpredictable individual vehicles are on the roads.

Each day, after the BRT bus has brought Marion to the central bus terminal in the neighbouring city, she boards the metro and travels to the hospital where she is a ward physician. She can now rely on public transport at times when she is working shifts, which was not the case in the past: BRT buses and metro trains operate throughout the night. The small, self-driving buses can also be called up at night, when bad whether discourages Marion from cycling.

During the midday break Marion chats with her husband Fabian. “We haven’t been for a while, shall be go to the cinema this evening?” - “That’s a good idea!” - “There’s a historical film, a so-called road movie, from the analogue era. How complicated it used to be when one wanted to travel. But it’s said to have a happy ending and hasn’t been completely slated on social media.” - “It’s bound to be fun. Let’s do it.” - “Good, I’ll organize it then”, says Marion, and uses an app to book two cinema tickets, make a restaurant reservation and organize a ride share for the journey home. Although it is not necessary to directly book a ticket for the latter, because it is all included in her season ticket and is invoiced on a best-price basis, nevertheless it does avoid the need to wait for a bus if she has notified the operator that she needs an on-call bus late in the evening. In the past one would use a taxi, with a driver at the wheel of an analogue car carrying one to three passengers and powered by fossil fuels. By 2050 only affluent nostalgia freaks would order a taxi, which could hardly be less economical, especially when one considers the amount of space taken up, and the working time equivalent.

There are still people at the wheel in rural areas

Diesel-powered buses still operate in the less densely populated surrounding region and in rural areas with a challenging topography. However, their numbers are declining rapidly because, if they have been in service for more than twelve years, they will have reached the end of their economic life. Moreover, because of the numerous environmental taxes, the fuel has become very expensive, and there are also strict regulations governing the use of vehicles powered by fossil fuels in built-up areas. New registrations for such vehicles have not been permitted since the beginning of 2030.

Public transport operators in rural areas and especially in mountainous regions were originally vehemently opposed to any attempt to ban diesels, but with the introduction of improved technology and regulatory intervention it has been possible to convince them of the benefits of alternative forms of propulsion. By providing advice about every aspect of this subject the manufacturers have done much to persuade people to accept change: Together with the customers they analysed the routes travelled by buses and examined the costs of infrastructure, passenger numbers, idling times, range, the availability of the charging infrastructure and the charging strategy. It is not surprising that city dwellers with one foot in the past should undertake special excursions organized by diesel associations in rural areas, and especially in the Central German Uplands, in historic buses and other vehicles.

Increasing use of multi-purpose vehicles

Ben’s grandparents, Alexander and Friederike, live in a village. Recently they have been full of praise for the new mobile opportunities available to them. With universal interconnectivity using broadband technology, buses are now in widespread use as a means of transport and communication. With the help of specially trained digitalisation advisors, it did not take Alexander and Friederike long to become real experts in the use and interconnection of apps, smartphones, computers and service platforms.

This was supported by a change of attitude on the part of regulatory bodies, as well as in business, trade unions and industry: The previous decade saw interaction between supply and demand, and by environmental and social necessities, leading to a transition in transport in the countryside too, and far-reaching cooperation between the various stakeholders in transport and logistics. The strict separation between passenger and goods transport on regional road networks was increasingly ignored since the number of people using buses at certain times remained very low, while the use of delivery vehicles continued to increase. Online mail order companies signed agreements with vehicle manufacturers and local bus companies, enabling them to drastically reduce the mileage covered by delivery vehicles, while buses saw a sharp rise in their load factors.

It was therefore feasible and permissible for such goods to be carried outside peak hours and school runs. Part of the interior of the buses was designed to be easily transformed into a freight compartment. A startup app in the bus and on the driver’s tablet simplified the placement of the consignments according to their delivery points because, without a bar or QR code, packages could no longer be dispatched. Goods are either collected from depots or, subject to an additional charge, can be delivered to the door. If the addressee does not live on a bus route the package is taken the “final mile” by a robot.

Buses consistently have manual drivers in rural areas. For this reason Alexander and Friederike not only use the bus to get to nearby a village to enjoy an evening meal at a restaurant there, but also to obtain goods that they have ordered from an online vendor, the local pharmacy or the neighbourhood greengrocer.

Full interconnectivity makes cars superfluous

During the day the village where Alexander and Friederike live is served by a smaller bus, driven by the pensioner Otto Fricke, an old acquaintance. There is always time for a brief chat at the bus stop.

If Alexander and Friederike want to go further than the next village, they can also take advantage of what is now a country-wide network of online services and transport: Theoretically they could book a trip around the world, using an app showing where and when the local bus service operates and enabling them to purchase the relevant tickets. After initial hesitation most transport companies have now agreed on a platform for booking journeys using almost any form of transport. Initially it was the major linked transport systems operating buses and railways, as well as national bus companies, but after much hesitation the airlines also agreed to join the system, followed by car rental companies and hotel portals.

New technologies that completely redefined travel were introduced in buses too. As highway congestion was reduced due to more effective regulation of traffic, so the punctuality of long distance buses improved. This attracted new customers, who were firstly delighted with the ease with which travelling times could be planned, and soon afterwards began demanding more comfort, for which they were prepared to pay higher prices.

Since then Alexander and Friederike have always sat in the front row of the coach when they go to visit their children and grandchildren in the city. The operator has introduced two classes on the buses, making access to the seats in the first few rows barrier-free. They are wider, with more legroom and a monitor, which can be linked to one’s own digital assistant. There is also an internal entertainment and information system on the bus. Preferential treatment when boarding the bus, as well as more generous baggage arrangements are other features. Soon afterwards the companies’ profit margins improved as a result of using moderate price adjustments to enable the market to rapidly “mop up” these particular seats. And so, Alexander and Friederike are eagerly awaiting their next visit to the children and grandchildren. “Take the car to the city? No way.”

Conclusion: The automation and interconnectedness of local public transport can help significantly to resolve many mobility problems in the city and in the countryside too. In all probability the importance of private cars in urban areas will decline. In many cases this will not be a revolutionary process but a gradual one. One thing is certain: there will be lasting changes to the daily lives of people on the move, and to the business models of operators and customers too.