Dial a bus: personalised urban public transport
No timetables. No fixed stops. No waiting ages in the rain. EU-funded researchers are running world-first trials of a public transport concept involving autonomous electric buses that may soon collect users on demand. Such fleets could be a less costly, greener option for areas where conventional services might not be viable.
© TPG, 2018
The EU-funded project AVENUE is operating mini-fleets of autonomous electric buses in low- to medium-demand areas of four cities one each in Copenhagen, Geneva, Luxembourg and Lyon.
'The overall objective is to prove that autonomous shuttles are a possible solution for public transportation in urban and suburban environments,' says project coordinator Dimitri Konstantas of the University of Geneva, Switzerland.
As of February 2019, less than a year after project launch, initial versions of all four demonstrators are up and running, and new services are under development to take them to the next level. At the moment, the vehicles involved cover fixed routes, but an upgrade to on-demand capability is imminent, Konstantas notes.
Building and operating an autonomous, personalised urban public transport system is a multifaceted challenge that extends well beyond technical issues, he says. In fact, says Konstantas, the technology has advanced a lot, although there is still a lot to do.
Key challenges include those of negotiating mixed traffic. AVENUE's shuttles are set up to stop instantly a person or object crosses their path, Konstantas explains by way of an example. As the technology currently stands, this feature limits the vehicles' ability to function in situations requiring a more assertive driving style, such as a congested city centre during rush hour.
But there are other aspects to address before vehicles without a human driver can truly take to the road. In particular, legal and regulatory change will be needed to create a suitable framework, Konstantas points out. AVENUE's objectives also include producing a roadmap that will outline the various obstacles to overcome.
Door to door, on demand
Autonomous vehicles are, of course, already in operation at sites around the world, but typically they are shuttles running along a predefined route between two specific locations, Konstantas observes. In AVENUE, the aim is to provide a service that will add stops as requested and optimise routes between these stops.
The system is proposed as an extension rather than replacement of the city's core public transport system, with which it is meant to tie in. Users could, for example, take one of these shared shuttles to reach the nearest stop of the backbone system, and the journey would be planned to get them there right on time not too late, but not too early either, Konstantas adds. They could also simply use the service to move around their own neighbourhood, which would be especially helpful for residents with limited mobility.
Wouldn't it cost the earth? Not in areas where the demand for public transport is limited, according to Konstantas. In such settings, the traditional alternative would have been infrequent conventional buses which are costly to operate, he observes.
In contrast, he expects the AVENUE system to be considerably more affordable and much more likely to actually be used. Where buses only run every few hours, potential passengers are likely to make other arrangements such as using their own cars. It's a vicious circle, he explains: low demand reduces frequency, and low frequency reduces demand, further eroding the business case for operators.
Drive and direction
AVENUE is looking into the economic aspects. It is also developing software for the management of the autonomous fleets, which will be designed as a platform that public transport operators will be able to add on to their existing systems, says Konstantas. The platform will include a variety of in- and out-of-vehicle services that operators may choose to offer, ranging from ticketing to 'follow my kid'.
In addition to the four demonstrator cities, the project is soon to enrol 'replicator' sites, for which the selection process is about to begin. AVENUE is looking for sites where the wheels of autonomous transport have already been set in motion, Konstantas notes.
These would be locations, for example, where an initial service involving at least one vehicle is in operation. Konstantas adds that prospective replicators would also have to have a certain level of strategic planning in place already, along with the necessary authorisations to scale up to a small fleet at short notice.
The replicators will add to the insight and resonance generated by AVENUE's trials. Autonomous, personalised public transport offers considerable benefits, but it's a radically different concept, Konstantas underlines. 'Bringing it about will require a change in mindset. It requires awareness of the advantages. It requires political will,' he concludes.