Hands off the wheel

Amsterdam is home to the world’s first self-driving city bus to operate in real traffic. But there is still a driver on-board.

Somewhere between Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport and the town of Haarlem, on the longest express bus route in Europe: a bus stands at a traffic light, waiting for the signal to move off. At this light, two horizontally adjacent red dots mean stop; two vertically arranged white dots mean go. The light switches to white, the bus smoothly sets off, and pulls into its lane. Red light ahead – the bus brakes safely and gently, and comes to a stop. In all these manoeuvres the bus is controlled not by a human driver, but by electronics. It is, in fact, the world’s first self-driving city bus to operate in real traffic.

Autonomous driving

There is still a driver on-board, but he is somewhat underemployed as the bus continues on its journey, even as it negotiates two bridges and an underpass. The bus keeps safely in lane. As it reaches the outskirts, it accelerates up to the 70 km/h limit. The maximum speed is pre-programmed, and even at this speed the driver is doing nothing. The bus comes to a halt at the stop, the doors open and close, the bus sets off again – all automatically. At the next traffic light, the bus’s high-tech camera system detects the position of the signal. The bus also communicates with the road infrastructure and receives information on the status of traffic lights via its on-board wireless network. This enables it to run through all the lights as they automatically switch to green for it. As the light changes, there are still pedestrians crossing the street. The bus waits until they have crossed and the road ahead is clear before setting off. The bus has an automatic braking system which activates as and when necessary to avoid collisions.

Developed specially for cities

Daimler has been trialling this so-called Future Bus in real traffic on a BRT (Bus Rapid Transit) route around Amsterdam since 2016. Daimler has been working for a number of years to advance self-driving technology to production maturity. The new Mercedes-Benz E-Class, for example, was the world’s first mass-produced car to be granted a test licence for autonomous driving, in the US state of Nevada. And the Highway Pilot developed by the Daimler Trucks division is currently being trialled as a partially automated driving system for trucks. Dr Wolfgang Bernhard, Member of the Management Board of Daimler AG and Head of Daimler Trucks & Buses, comments: “Launched almost two years ago, our Highway Pilot demonstrates that autonomous driving will make long-distance truck transportation more efficient and safer. We are now bringing the technology to our city buses as the City Pilot. The system has been specially adapted to operate in cities. It runs in partially autonomous mode in specially assigned bus lanes.” BRT networks such as in Amsterdam are ideal candidates as a first step towards fully automated city bus operation: an unchanging route, running in a separated lane; a clearly defined timetable; unambiguous and identical actions at stops.

Cameras and sensors intelligently interlinked

The self-driving bus detects whether the route ahead is suitable for automated running, and signals the fact to the driver. A press of a button by the bus driver activates the City Pilot. For the system to operate, the driver must lift his foot off the accelerator or brake pedal and not steer, because any manual action would override the system. So the driver always retains control, and can intervene as necessary. The autonomous driving solution incorporates the latest assistance systems, as are used on-board Mercedes-Benz coaches for example, as well as additional systems which have been partially adopted by Daimler Trucks and enhanced to handle urban traffic. They include long and short range radar, a multiplicity of cameras, and the GPS satellite navigation system. Cameras and sensors are intelligently interlinked to create a detailed picture of the surroundings and identify the bus’s exact position.

Legal framework still lacking

The partially autonomous city bus aims to significantly enhance safety in urban traffic. Experts predict that autonomous driving will cut the number of accidents by 80 per cent by 2035. The predictive capabilities of the Future Bus also improve efficiency, place less strain on components, and reduce both fuel consumption and emissions. And the smooth, uniform ride additionally enhances passenger comfort. The law does not yet allow regular autonomous driving on the road however. “We urgently need to adapt the rules of the 20th century to the 21st,” Dr Bernhard warns. “But we should not get bogged down in bureaucracy. Before we start debating all the potential issues linked to fully autonomous driving, we first need to make partially autonomous driving possible. We need to allow drivers to take their hands off the wheel.”

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