Moving ahead with robot buses

Driverless buses may soon be a familiar sight: researchers in Finland are testing such vehicles in real-life conditions, and they are keen to take the technology forward. Trials have been conducted for a few weeks at a time in Espoo, Helsinki and Tampere. With buses operating in mixed traffic on open roads, this project is one of the world’s most advanced initiatives of its kind.

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EZ10 automatic bus in Hernesaari, Finland © Sohjoa project – Oscar Nissin EZ10 automatic bus in Hernesaari, Finland © Sohjoa project – Oscar Nissin

" Sohjoa is among the first automatic bus projects globally to bring such vehicles to open roads, and its enterprising approach has gained it and Finland global attention. "

Harri Santamala, Project Director – Smarter Mobility, Metropolia University of Applied Sciences

There are roads in Finland where moving vehicles don’t necessarily have a driver. Granted, there aren’t many such vehicles at the moment, they don’t move very fast, and their use is experimental — but roll-out on a much larger scale may be imminent. 

The team behind the Sohjoa project, which is trialling robot buses, is generating momentum for the deployment of such vehicles at home and abroad. It has reached out to companies working in the field of smart mobility and is creating an innovation platform businesses can use to develop or test promising ideas. 

Autonomous urban vehicles

The self-driving buses championed by Sohjoa are cost-effective, energy-efficient electric vehicles designed for up to nine passengers. Trials on the open road — as opposed to closed circuits, where normal traffic does not have to be factored in — began in 2016, to be followed by a new round in 2017. 

The project’s bid to take such buses forward benefits from a particularity of Finnish law, which doesn’t specify that the driver of a vehicle has to actually be inside it. Given the potential safety benefits and risks of automated vehicles, trials are actively encouraged. They can involve a driver operating the car remotely. 

For the time being, Sohjoa’s trials do still have a driver on stand-by in the bus, who can take control if needed. In Helsinki and Espoo, they were conducted in mixed traffic — on open roads used by conventional vehicles — while the Tampere trial was held in a pedestrian area, says project director Harri Santamala of Metropolia University of Applied Sciences in Helsinki. 

The main outcomes of these trials are the extended know-how of the realities of robot bus operation, he reports. The tests have also helped to boost public awareness of the technology not just in the areas where they were conducted, but also much farther afield, as the project has attracted considerable media interest.

Going the extra mile

Sohjoa envisages robot buses being used as part of a public transport system’s ‘last mile’ service — the connection between a major node on the transport system, such as a stop on the metro service, and the passenger’s destination. Improvements at this stage of the journey could boost the use of public transport, help to curb congestion in urban areas and contribute to greater sustainability. They could also reduce operating costs.

The knowledge generated by Sohjoa has sparked off a number of new initiatives, Santamala reports. It is feeding into the development of innovative products and services facilitating the operation of automated road transport systems or benefiting from their availability. Sohjoa aims to set Finland in the fast lane of the development of such systems, the project partners note, and every trial marks a new milestone in this drive. 


Total investment and EU funding 

Total investment for the project “Sohjoa: physical and virtual innovation platform of autonomous last mile urban transportation” is EUR 553 417, with the EU’s European Regional Development Fund contributing EUR 224 957 through the “Sustainable growth and jobs 2014-20 – Structural Funds programme of Finland (ERDF)” Operational Programme for the 2014-2020 programming period.


Draft date