EasyMile autonomous buses are deployed across cities
EasyMile autonomous buses are deployed across cities
( Source: EasyMile)

AUTONOMOUS BUSES Bus innovation is reducing the need for cars

Author / Editor: Cate Lawrence / Jochen Schwab

Buses have become to epitomize the best aspects of innovation in mobility, with efforts to deploy carbon-neutral power and successful trials of autonomous buses throughout numerous cities. As a critical component of any city or regional area, their design will also further evolve in response to COVID-19.

Cars preoccupy the spotlight as key innovators in mobility. Thus, the humble bus has escaped the headlines - until now. Over the last few years, we've seen a plethora of innovation furthering autonomous buses' progression onto the roads, and growth in the demand for buses powered by electric batteries and carbon fuel cells.

Autonomous buses are successfully scaling

The need for infrastructure and legal agreements across states and countries means we won't be riding an electronic bus across one side of Europe to the other just yet. But they've been successfully deployed in many use cases such as otherwise carless old cities and college campuses.

One of the best-known OEMS is EasyMile who developed its first product in 2014: a 12-passenger driverless shuttle bus referred to as the EZ10. EZ10s have continued to evolve with pilots and successful deployments across cities around the world including Montreal, Queensland, Santiago De Chile and Colorado. The buses run at Level 4 automation, are driverless, 100% electric, and designed for operation in mixed traffic environments such as campuses, town centers and other locations. Monheim on the Rhine, is the first municipality in Germany to set up a bus line with EZ10 vehicles on public roads. They have been deployed in Norway for several years in trials where passengers can use an app to summon a bus. The buses were temporarily halted in February in the US after a bus came to an unexpected emergency stop, while driving 7 mph and a passenger fell from their seat but resumed operation in May after a collaboration with NHTSA resulted in a new Safety Passenger Enhancement Plan.

A further three autonomous bus prototypes are to be evaluated in real-life conditions on the roads of five European cities as part of the FABULOS (Future Automated Bus Urban Level Operation System) project. It focuses on the management of

fleets as part of public transportation systems.

The pilots have already started in Helsinki, Finland, and are due to begin in Gjesdal (Norway) and Tallinn (Estonia), depending on COVID-19 restrictions. They will be followed by Lamia (Greece), Helmond (the Netherlands), and further expansion in Gjesdal.

The FABULOS trial in Eastern Pasila, Helsinki
The FABULOS trial in Eastern Pasila, Helsinki
(Source: Copyright © Jussi Hellsten)

In Helsinki, the vehicles in the FABULOS project drive along a circular route in Eastern Pasila. The Pasila route runs around a large block consisting of offices and housing, together with several public services and authorities. The robot buses ride partly on a separate lane with speeds of up to 40 km/h. The route includes several crossroads with traffic lights, right turns, street-side parking, and a roundabout. There are three bus stops on the route and on-demand rides between the existing bus stops via an app. The fleet of three vehicles is operated and monitored from a Remote Control Centre.

Hydrogen buses: the tortoise gaining traction

While hydrogen lacks the history of electricity use, it is still part of the equation to reduce transport carbon emissions. In April Arcola Energy and Optare Group launched a hydrogen fuel cell double-decker bus in the UK. Scheduled to start operating in 2021, the Metrodecker H2 hydrogen bus is built on the Optare Metrodecker EV platform. It incorporates a hydrogen fuel cell powerpack developed by Arcola Energy as a direct replacement for the battery powerpack in the Metrodecker EV.

It can carry more than 90 passengers and offers a zero-emission range of between 200 and 250 miles depending on specification and route.

Electric roads: another way to charge electric buses

This week the city of Tel Aviv-Yafo has launched a pilot wireless electric road for charging public transportation, in partnership with Israeli startup ElectReon and Dan Bus Company. The pilot is focused between Tel Aviv University Railway Station and Klatzkin Terminal in Ramat Aviv – a two-kilometer route, including 600 meters (0.37 miles) of electric road. ElectReon successfully demonstrated the ability to charge heavy trucks on a 1.6-kilometer electric road as part of a total route of 4.1km between the town of Visby and the airport on Gotland Island in Sweden. Electric roads enable a power transfer from the road to the vehicle while the vehicle is in motion through different power transfer technologies such as rail, overhead line, and wireless solutions.

Bus depots benefit greatly from automation

Bus depots are typically crowded, potentially dangerous workplaces. In November last year, Volvo held a demonstration with bus operator Keolis, at Keolis' bus depot just outside of Gothenburg, Sweden. A 12 m autonomous bus successfully drove itself between the parking bay and several workstations, including cleaning, servicing, and electric charging, before parking itself in the correct bay – all while carrying passengers.

The trial demonstrates the advantage of a quicker maneuver, saving time and space: the vehicle drives itself, optimizing the space available, on entering and exiting the depot. Refueling and washing can also be carried out in full autonomy.

Electric trumps green energy - for now

The electric bus market is evolving rapidly as cities pledge to improve air quality and address climate change. China leads the world in bus electrification with over 400,000 electric buses across the country. Research released by IDTechEx predicts a future-focused on electric buses. It suggests that plug-in hybrids are rapidly losing low market shares and that fuel cell-powered vehicles will continue making up a small fraction of the market. Electric buses status as front runners can be attributed to the falling price of battery materials and the packs themselves and the progression and scaling of charging infrastructure. Will carbon fuel cell offerings catch up? It's anyone's guess.

Buses must respond to the challenge of COVID-19

COVID-19 demonstrates the significant need for easy to clean buses and the requirement to protect drivers and passengers from airborne particles. The recent FourC Challenge tasked design students to design future-proof buses. The winning "Futurebus" design team created a futuristic bus concept that minimizes contact and creates a potentially safer transportation experience for riders. It reconfigures the way passengers get on and off the bus by installing a single large sliding door that allows riders to hop on and off with minimal contact. The seating direction is alternated to create a protective barrier for riders and uses copper-infused fabric known to reduce pathogens.