Guest Article: The autonomous bus: idea or even solution for the future?
Back in March 2017, Darmstadt's HEAG demonstrated an autonomous EasyMile EZ 10, built in Toulouse, France, on a former American barracks site. It was supposed to illustrate that a driverless neighbourhood minibus line could be set up in this development project for a residential area that was to replace the former barracks, offering a connection to the tram in Heidelberger Straße. HEAG had created a demonstration "line" for which the little EasyMile was programmed for and on which it showed quite impressively that it was able to recognize intersections and turned right and left along the chosen "line route". And, very importantly, it did not run over any pedestrians either, although they kept on jumping into the lane very shortly before the vehicle might have hit them. Instead, it braked absolutely reliably to a standstill.
In October 2017, the first line with autonomous minibuses went into scheduled service in Germany. In the Lower Bavarian spa town of Bad Birnbach, a connection started from the spa district via the town centre to the railway station. The special feature of this line is that the small autonomous bus has to cross a busy main road between the town and the station. This crossing is secured with traffic lights and the little Easy Mile has to recognise which signal the traffic light shows. Independent of its colours, the minibus has to act accordingly. At the station, it drives right next to the train on the platform: it's hard to change trains more easily.
In Drolshagen, an autonomous minibus line was tested in spring 2019. Here, too, the vehicle was an EasyMile EZ 10. The "line" started at a retirement home and it was intended to show that such an autonomous minibus can reconnect the residents to ordinary life. Those residents who are no longer so good on their feet can jump on the minibus in the courtyard of the property and ride to the centre of town, where they can go shopping or meet other people – by any means an attractive concept.
Of course, we also have to mention the trials of an autonomous EasyMile EZ 10 in Berlin. Here, it ran in regular service between the Tegel underground station and the Tegeler See lake. The test was successful, yet the BVG stopped the project. However, soon after it announced that a new test will be carried out with three autonomous minibus lines, again starting from the Tegel underground station.
Germany's largest operation with autonomous minibuses to date is currently in operation in the city of Monheim between Cologne, Leverkusen and Düsseldorf. Here, five EasyMile EZ 10s are on the road on the "A 01" line from the bus station via the old town to the banks of the Rhine. To recharge the batteries of the trolleys, charging columns were installed in a car park at the banks of the Rhine terminus. In Kelheim, Bavaria, a larger network will be built in 2023 at the latest with the support of the Federal Ministry of Transport and Digital Infrastructure.
In Contern, Luxembourg, a line with an autonomous minibus between the "Schenker" and "Kühne & Nagel" stops went into operation in autumn 2018. A french product is also in use here, but in this case a Navya of the Arma type. The names of the two terminal stops show it: the line is about two kilometres long and runs through an industrial area. Actually, it should end at the station, but between Kühne & Nagel and the station there would have been a multi-lane roundabout to pass, which would have overtaxed the small Navya, at least back at that time. Contern's Navya worked without any complaints. Another Navya Arma went into service on the island of Sylt. It ran between the station in Westerland, Tinnum and Keitum.
Hamburg tested another autonomous minibus in its new Harbor-City. It was produced by the German manufacturers Siemens and IAV. In the Harbor-City, it initially served a small loop with a route of 1.8 kilometres, which grew to a length of 2.7 kilometres in a second phase. What was new about the Hamburg test was that the trolley communicates with special infrastructure components which are installed at the side of the road. These devices inform the minibus about whether cross traffic is to be expected from the side street with the blind junction.
All the vehicles we have looked at so far are minibuses for only a few passengers. But just a month ago, in March 2021, the Turkish bus manufacturer Karsan entered the field of autonomous midibuses for the first time with its autonomous bus "Atak". Karsan's "Atak electric" can carry 52 passengers. Its autonomous driving is based on the "flowride.ai" software from the Californian software company Adastec. The car scans its surroundings 20 times a second with sensors installed all around the entire vehicle.
The autonomous bus is making rapid progress. And there are good reasons to believe that in the future it won't be possible at all to imagine a world without autonomous buses.