Recently we all watched as Daimler Buses put its autonomous city bus into a real-time traffic loop - driving a 12-plus mile route in Amsterdam. On a section of the longest bus rapid transit line in Europe, the Mercedes-Benz Future Bus with CityPilot drove at speeds up to 43 miles per hour, stopped to the nearest centimeter at bus stops and traffic lights, drove off again automatically, passed through tunnels, braked for obstacles/pedestrians and communicated with traffic signals. The driver was on board to only monitor the system. It was an amazing sight to behold and showed us what our autonomous future may hold.
For years we have seen American and foreign automakers, as well as tech companies like Google, talk about and test the technology in automobile manufacturing. Our cars are getting smarter as new models can do more to help drivers be safer on the road, become better parallel parkers and navigate unknown areas like a native. Now that same technology is being applied to trucks and buses around the world, as well as the United States.
Some analysts and manufacturers predict that the first true autonomous vehicle will be in production and on the road by 2019, at the earliest. But the question remains: Are we ready for this? Considering both the current infrastructure we have, as well as current drivers on the road, for that matter, there remain a number of unanswered questions in terms of preparedness for this automotive and technological advancement.
For instance, not only do these vehicles need to communicate with one another but they also need to “read” the road and detect the sensors in the road. In the United States, we have more than 3.9 million miles of road with only 2.6 million that are actually paved and very few of those having smart technology built into them. That leaves more than 1.3 million miles of unpaved roads for these smart cars to navigate. In terms of preparedness, there will need to be a large investment in the infrastructure to achieve smart roads for smart vehicles.
Another question is how will these vehicles be introduced to the traveling public? Will they go through the same regulatory process as their airborne brethren – drones? Will it be easier to carve out “hot” lanes on the ground for these cars? How will they communicate with older vehicles?
Some cities around the world are already embracing this technology and working to integrate it into their transportation infrastructure. According to driverless-future.com, these cities are a few of the early adopters of autonomous vehicles:
- Columbus, Ohio: In June, the Department of Transportation awarded a $50 million grant to Columbus to become the first city to implement self-driving car and related technology into their urban transportation system. San Francisco, Austin, Texas, Denver, Kansas City, Mo., Pittsburgh and Portland, Ore. all competed in the Smart City Challenge and are working on proposals to integrate self-driving technology into their transportation network.
- Beverly Hills, Calif.: The city council passed a resolution aimed at the long-term adoption of self-driving cars. The resolution starts the first activities towards achieving that goal, but does not yet commit major resources.
- Milton Keynes, UK: Trials of self-driving pods have already begun in this British city. The electric pods transport people at low speed between the train station and the city center. Additional UK cities which are experimenting with self-driving car technologies are London (self-driving shuttles and Volvo Drive Me London), Coventry and Bristol.
- Singapore: This may be the most active and visionary city with respect to driverless transportation. Several years ago it launched the Singapore Autonomous Vehicle Initiative, partnered with MIT on future urban mobility and initiated several projects aimed at improving urban transportation systems through self-driving car technology. The city has already set up a testing zone for self-driving cars and is conducting several trials in 2016.
- Wageningen/Dutch Province Gelderland (Netherlands): A project with driverless shuttles is already underway. The self-driving Wepods aim to revolutionize public transport and provide a new, cost-effective way to bring public transportation to under-served areas.
- Wuhu, China: Self-driving cars and buses will be introduced into the city of Wuhu over the next five years.
It’s clear autonomous vehicles are coming; it is no longer an “if” discussion but more of a “when.” A question we should all be considering now is: will the motorcoach industry be an early adopter? Where or when will we first see these new buses? Maybe on campus loops? What do you think?