Imagine a city bus rolling down the street with nobody behind the wheel. Or hopping onto a Greyhound during your travels without a driver. It sounds like a futuristic scenario, but a driverless reality isn’t too far off from where we are now.
The topic of autonomous vehicles has rapidly become a hot news item—Uber has announced plans to replace human drivers with robotic ones, major auto manufacturers have started building self-driving vehicles like the Mercedes-Benz Future Truck 2025 and Volvo’s 2016 XC90 SUV. Tesla has already upgraded the autopilot feature of its customers’ existing cars. And of course, Google has built its own self-driving prototype.
We’re now getting used to the idea of driverless cars becoming a reality, but what does that mean for busses? With so many passengers and different stop requirements, busses are a far more complicated endeavor than driverless cars, but they’re already being tested around the world.
The Current State of Self-Driving Buses
Asia has already got a head start on producing autonomous public transit—China launched the world’s first self-driving bus in August 2015. The bus drives with guidance by cameras, laser radars, and a master controller, along with a human driver behind the wheel ready to take over in case any problems arise. It succeeded in handling complicated maneuvers like lane changes and traffic light responses without human assistance.
Check it out here (and keep an eye out for the driver with his hands behind his head, just chillin):
Europe isn’t far behind either. Italian consulting firm, Mobility Thinklab, first tested driverless minibusses in 2013. The demonstration took place at a seafront town, a pedestrian environment that included cyclists. However, the biggest obstacle ended up being the surrounding pine trees! They interfered with the GPS guidance system and required the supervisors to take control.
In November 2015, the Netherlands had a self-driving shuttle bus successfully transport passengers on a public road without human assistance. The WEpod took six passengers at 16 miles/hour over 650 feet for its first test run. PostBus, a Swiss bus company, also announced plans to try self-driving busses in Switzerland in 2016 as part of a two-year test to see how well these vehicles will function in real-life traffic.
There haven’t been any self-driving busses on public roads in the United States yet, but with Americans taking over 10 billion bus trips in 2014 alone, that could definitely change soon.
According to the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), over 32,000 individuals died in car crashes in 2014—driver error caused 94% of the accidents.
Driver-related issues include distractions or lack of attention, driving too fast, illegal maneuvers, and poor directional control. With so many possibilities for mistakes to intervene, coupled with uncontrollable environment-related conditions, drivers are at a higher risk of dangerous road accidents than autonomous vehicles.
That also doesn’t include the risks of alcohol-impaired driving, which led to nearly 10,000 deaths in the U.S. in 2014. Self-driving vehicles may help decrease the number of potential fatalities, but as Google’s Chris Urmson has found (he leads the company’s self-driving program): as long as there are other humans driving, there’s a risk of accidents. You can’t stop someone else from slamming into your self-driving car, after all.
Driverless vehicles can also reduce traffic congestion because they can travel more efficiently. Self-driving busses follow fixed routes, which are simpler to handle than the various complicated routes a taxi or car usually travels.
Considering the growth of urban populations in the States, driverless busses can transport a lot more people than cars or taxis. This has a tremendous impact on the environment. Transportation accounted for 27% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions in 2013, which was the second largest contributor to U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. More busses mean fewer vehicles on the road overall, and as a result, major benefits for our planet.
However, this technology hasn’t developed to the point where autonomous vehicles can drive during serious weather conditions such as heavy snow or rain. Additionally, they can’t read hand signals so while self-driving vehicles do recognize other cars and people on the road, they don’t yet recognize the actions of traffic cops directing traffic or cyclists making a lane change.
That said, a few major tech giants like Google have already begun to address these obstacles by building a combination of sensors and algorithms to identify cyclist behavior. Check out this video of Google’s self-driving car navigating a street with cyclists, pedestrians, and construction cones on all sides:
Self-driving technology is growing more and more sophisticated, which is good news for people who rely on cars or busses as their main source of transport. But for those who make a living by driving, driverless vehicles are a serious threat; one million drivers, including over 150,000 transit bus drivers and nearly 500,000 school bus drivers, could lose their jobs in the U.S. alone. And that extends beyond drivers: because self-driving vehicles are less likely to get into accidents, there’ll be less need for automotive repair workers.
There are also big network security considerations involved with the automation of driving, so automakers will be held accountable for exploitable software bugs, which can be vulnerable to hacking—something that critics have consistently flagged.
The biggest challenge self-driving technology, however, is its inherent newness. In the U.S., some states have already created (but not yet passed) bills to allow self-driving vehicles on the road, such as California and Connecticut, but only for testing. But because auto companies are still working out the complex technical kinks, no national laws have been enacted to address this new technological development in road transportation.
The biggest obstacle to autonomous vehicles becoming a reality is the dilemma revolving around federal regulations and self-driving technology. Safety protocols can’t be established without gauging the actual safety of self-driving cars on the road, but these vehicles aren’t allowed on public roads until the proper regulations have been created for them. As Wired flagged, it’s a catch-22.
Due to the NHTSA’s historically reactive stance to new technology, consumers will be able to purchase self-driving vehicles before any federal regulations have passed. This means companies like Google and Tesla will be the ones to influence how driverless vehicles (including busses) will be handled in day-to-day circumstances. Even public infrastructure will be shaped by these tech corporations.
Driverless busses haven’t been tested to nearly the same extent as cars. But that doesn’t mean they’re not an inevitability. After all, we already have similar forms of autonomous public transit like subway trains and monorail systems—it’s just that for busses, there’s no track. Despite this, with such tech powerhouses behind the movement, self-driving busses may just be the next step in the evolution of transport technology after all.