Driverless busses coming to a street near you

March 13, 2017 - 06:25

Tests are underway in Stavanger, but new laws have to be drafted and passed before self-driving busses can actually take to the streets. The Norwegian Government will probably give them the green light this year.

The driverless French bus EasyMile has been tested recently at Forus Næringspark in Stavanger, Norway. Bus drivers from the public transport firm Kolumbus supervised the tests. These busses can merge with normal traffic at Forus Næringspark once legislation is enacted. (Photo: Elisabeth Tønnessen, Kolumbus)

French-built EasyMile EZ driverless electric busses arrived in Stavanger at the end of 2016. They have been whirring around in a closed-off section of pavement ever since. 

“The bus has rolled around for nearly 200 hours and has yet to drive into any obstacles,” says Stein Grødem.

Grødem is the managing director of Forus Næringspark, an industrial office park near Stavanger, Norway. The goal of these first 200 hours was to get acquainted with the vehicle and teach drivers the ropes,” he explains.

Driver can hit the emergency button

What? Drivers in an autonomous bus? Yes, so far they are going along for the ride to ensure nothing goes wrong.

“We have an agreement with [the Norwegian bus company] Norgesbuss which is operating for Kolumbus, and we have borrowed three of their drivers, who have now received training,” says Grødem.

Kolumbus is Rogaland County’s public transportation firm. Drivers participating in these trials have little to do as they lack a steering wheel, an accelerator or even a brake pedal. EasyMile EZ 10 is equipped with none of the above. If something goes haywire during a test run, a human driver can hit a big red button. That stops the bus.

“It could be steered by a human, but a hook-up with a mobile phone, a tablet or a joystick is needed to do so,” says Grødem.

Video from Kolumbus shows the test bus in action at Forus Næringspark.

Replacing cars

The next phase of tests will involve the busses moving to a public street – but it will be one in the Forus Næringspark grid.

“We will soon apply to the Ministry of Transport and Communications for dispensation from the traffic laws,” says Grødem. When that exemption is granted the busses can roll out onto the four kilometres of streets at the industrial park this spring or summer.

“Then the busses will drive for 2,000 hours, still without passengers,” says Grødem. The drivers from Kolumbus will continue to ride along with their hands by the emergency stop button.

The goal here is to get these busses running on normal routes inside the industrial/office park. It’s a large area. The majority of those who work here currently commute to work by car, according to the magazine Teknisk Ukeblad.

The busses will make it easier for commuters to leave their cars at home. The autonomous vehicles will drive a ring road inside the area.  Grødem says that plans are underway to provide an app for passengers which summons the busses to pick them up at particular spots.

The barrier in the road that is keeping these busses off the street is Norway’s road laws. 

Will the busses be allowed?

The use of self-driving vehicles is currently prohibited by the Road Traffic Act, especially the laws regarding the legal responsibilities of drivers, according to a government press release. The government is supportive and plans to draft new legislation to the national assembly – the Storting – for trial runs of autonomous vehicles. 

“The goal is to submit a proposal to the Storting in the spring of 2017,” wrote Minister of Transport and Communications Ketil Solvik-Olsen in an August 2016 press release.

ScienceNordic’s Norwegian partner forskning.no has been informed by the ministry that the new legislation has been making consultative rounds with a deadline that ended a couple of weeks ago on 1 March.

This law will clear the way for more comprehensive testing of autonomous vehicles than currently allowed.

The draft legislation will be put to a vote in the Storting in the course of the spring of 2017. Regulations are also being made covering the practical implementations of the law.

How fast can the law and the regulations be implemented?

“The time frame hinges on a number of things, like how long it takes the Storting to consider the proposal and progress with drafting regulations,” writes the ministry in an e-mail to forskning.no.

On the road in Finland and California

Such legislation and regulations have already been passed in Finland. In the summer of 2016 an EZ10 drove its first passengers in the Ärtholmen District of Helsinki. Bus routes were also started last autumn in the Finnish cities Espoo and Tampere where they drove until the winter snows fell.

The trials will continue until the spring of 2017, according to the web pages of the EU-supported project SOHJOA. A number of Finnish research institutions are collaborating in the tests.

Video from SOHJOA project shows EZ10 running a route along a public street at Ärtholmen in Helsinki, Finland.

Not surprisingly, the electric-powered EZ10 is running in California too. At a parking lot in San Ramon, east of San Francisco, tests are being run which are similar to those on the outskirts of Stavanger at Forus Næringspark.

The goal in the Bay Area is to get the busses out on public streets in 2018, according to Reuters. California laws already permit this – as long as the vehicles stick to low speeds.

Research reports have indicated that in certain cases vehicles are more environmentally friendly than trains, especially EVs.

Snail with laser eyes

The EZ10 is a good example. But it is a snail on the road. Its top speed is 40 km per hour and regular driving speed during operations is half that, informs the producer Ligier on its web pages.

EZ10 is obviously nothing for the race tracks, but oddly, Ligier has also constructed Formula-1 cars for 20 years.

EZ10 can drive up to 14 hours on its fully charged lithium-ion battery pack. The bus navigates and identifies any obstacles using video cameras, lasers and GPS, according to the Ligier website.

EZ10 is identical front and back. This means it can drive either way equally well. No need to do a 180-degree turn at the end of the line.

Steering wheel?

As the EZ10 has no steering wheel it follows one of two contradictory ideas about how self-driving vehicles should be constructed.

One of these two is represented by Tesla. The California-based manufacturor of high-end EVs already sells cars with the capacity for autonomous driving. But in a critical situation, or just if he/she wants to, a Tesla the driver can take over at any given time.

Others, however, think this transition between automatic and manual driving poses a threat. 

“If the car is in a situation it can’t handle there is almost no likelihood that a human can successfully avert this by taking over,” said Professor Martin Steinart at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology to forskning.no in August 2016.

“Think about it! How hard should you hit the brakes? You need a couple of seconds,” said Steinert. He reasoned that Google’s solution based on the reaction speed of a computer is superior.

The Google spin-off company Waymo has now taken over the development of a car without a steering wheel. In 2015 one of these drove on a public road in Austin, Texas with a sightless man as its only passenger. Texas laws also make allowances for tests of driverless cars without a steering wheel on public roads.

Links:

Nå er den selvkjørende bussen her, press release from the public transport firm Kolumbus

The Finnish SOHJOA project

Technical information about EasyMile EZ10 from Ligier

Førerløse biler kan bli lovlig på norske veier, press release from the Norwegian Ministry of Transport and Communications, 29.06.2016

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Read the Norwegian version of this article at forskning.no

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Translated by
Glenn Ostling

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