Robotic Buses Leapfrog Self-Driving Trucks in Autonomy Revolution

February 27, 2017 by Chris O'Brien, @obrien

As views of public transportation’s future go, it might be hard to beat the one now available in the heart of Paris.

Starting at 2 p.m. each day, a 12-seat, box-shaped autonomous bus collects passengers from the city’s Lyon train station and carries them half a mile across the Charles de Gaulle Bridge to the Austerlitz terminal. At 12 mph, passengers have plenty of time to marvel at Paris’ famed Belle Époque architecture and the Seine River below.

Onboard there is a public transportation employee who rides among the passengers, and the electric bus rolls in a dedicated lane that keeps it out of traffic. But otherwise, it starts, turns and stops on its own using an array of software and sensors.

This 4-month experiment by the city of Paris is modest, but in the fast-developing field of autonomous vehicles, it’s an example of how buses may be taking the lead in the revolution. While large trucks and passenger cars are still in various stages of demonstration, autonomous buses are already in limited use around the world, poised for rapid expansion.

“These are the first real steps for autonomous vehicles,” said Marion Lheritier, spokesperson for EasyMile, the French company that makes the shuttle being used in Paris. “People need to collect data to figure out how the regulations will evolve. But this is moving very quickly now.”

The category of autonomous buses encompasses a wide range of vehicles.

At the low end are small shuttles that transport people in defined areas, like the grounds of a museum or a park. At the higher end, there are highway-ready, long-range city buses like the one Chinese firm Yutong drove in 2015 at speeds up to 42 mph for 20 miles through the city of Zhengzhou.

Mercedes-Benz demonstrated its “Future Bus” last summer in Amsterdam. Equipped with the company’s CityPilot system, the bus navigated about 10 miles around the city, pausing 11 times for passengers and successfully navigating 25 traffic lights.

The automaker, which bills itself as the largest manufacturer of buses in the world, said it would invest $210 million through 2020 developing the CityPilot technology. As they did in Amsterdam, the buses run in bus rapid transit, or BRT, lanes, which are dedicated solely for public transportation. Mercedes-Benz will target the 180 BRT systems already in place running about 40,000 buses, though it’s not quite ready to put a timetable on a full rollout.

“We are working on further projects to improve the safety of our buses, using our experience of the Mercedes-Benz Future Bus,” said Mercedes-Benz spokesperson Nada Filipovic. “There is no plan to get this vehicle in serial production.”

The short-term opportunity tends to be in the smaller category of shuttles and short-haul buses that are fueled by a growing number of start-ups and venture capital. While there is no firm data about the number of self-driving buses in operation, many cities and public transportation agencies now regularly include the possibility of autonomous buses as part of their planning process.

“I think we’ve gone beyond hype now,” said David Alexander, a transportation analyst at research firm Navigant Research. “A couple of years ago, that’s all it was. Now the industry is moving forward into serious trials and production plans.”

France’s EasyMile, based in the southwest city of Toulouse, is a good example of how quickly this market is moving. Founded in 2014, the company was created as a joint venture between automaker Lieger Group and robotics company Robosoft.

EasyMile's EZ10 in Paris

EasyMile’s EZ10 in Paris. (Photo: EasyMile)

Almost three years later, EasyMile has 70 employees and offices in Singapore and Denver. The company has dozens of trials underway in cities around the globe. Its EZ10 shuttle is being used full time to carry people in several locations, including settings like Singapore’s massive futuristic Gardens By The Bay and along the Darwin Waterfront in northern Australia.

They may be deployed soon in the Bay Area in a partnership with the Contra Costs Transportation Authority.

“They are running regular routes,” said Lheritier of EasyMile. “They are moving people around on a daily basis.”

This momentum attracted the attention of Alstom, a French company that is one of the largest manufacturers of urban trams, trains and metro systems. Earlier this year, Alstom invested $15 million in EasyMile for a minority stake in the company.

Bruno Marguet, Alstom’s vice president of strategy, said that as the company tries to reimagine urban transportation, it’s interested in autonomous vehicle’s like EasyMile’s to get people from their homes to the rail stations. For local governments, the appeal of clean, safe automated transportation that can help reduce the number of cars on the road makes these types of vehicle an attractive bet.

“More and more people are looking for mobility solutions that will go from end to end,” Marguet said. “When you are the station, you need a solution for that last mile.”

EasyMile faces plenty of competition in this space. Local Motors, a Phoenix-based manufacturer, uses 3-D printing, open source tools and crowdsourced designs to build vehicles in “microfactories” around the country. It’s developed Olli, a self-driving electric shuttle that is currently in trials in Europe and the U.S. as the company begins to ramp up production.

 Local Motors' Olli shuttle

Local Motors’ Olli shuttle. (Photo: Local Motors)

Back in Europe, Paris-based Navya raised $34 million in venture capital last fall to continue development and trials of its electric, autonomous shuttle bus, the Arma.

Christophe Sapet, chief executive officer, said the biggest obstacle is getting governments to put rules in place to allow the shuttles and buses to operate in a greater number of areas. And with respect to public transit agencies, figuring out the financing for purchasing the vehicles.

“We are receiving a lot of different requests from many different countries,” he said. “We can make really advanced vehicles right now. The technology is not the problem.”

Indeed, much of the technology used on the most basic shuttles for things like the sensors, cameras, software and algorithms have been around for a while.

Michel Parent has been working on autonomous vehicle development now for almost three decades. He spent much of that time at France’s National Institute for Research in Computer Science and Automation, where he started a program to develop a public transit system using electric, automated vehicles in the mid-1990s.

Arma.21: Navya Arma shuttle

Navya Arma shuttle. (Photo: Nayya)

More recently, he co-founded and is president of AutoKAB, short for Automation Kits for Autos and Buses. As the full name suggests, the company makes technology to allow current vehicles to convert to autonomous.

“It surprised me that we didn’t see these automated shuttles earlier,” Parent said. “But people are ready to invest and experiment and deploy them now. I had a lot of fun doing this work as a researcher. It is very exciting to see this finally happening.”

Related: U.S. and Europe Race to be First to Self-Driving Trucks

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