The future of autonomous public transport

A recent paper published by automotive consultancy company SBD and maps provider HERE shows that a dramatic increase in autonomous cars could mean severe congestion issues in cities.

The current trend of car ownership indicates that individual car buyers will continue to buy cars, which will mean an overall increase in the total number of cars. Road infrastructure in major cities around the world has nearly reached its limit, prompting many to seriously pursue mass transportation.

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Traffic in the Indian city of New Delhi (Image source: Creative Commons)

So where has autonomous public transport reached in terms of technology and viability?

Semi-autonomous systems have been in place for trains since the 70s and are used on select lines in major cities like New York’s Subway system, London’s Underground, Barcelona’s Metro, and Vancouver’s Sky Train. Metro officials in New Delhi have stated that driverless trains will run on a select corridor from August 2016. The CEO of Germany’s railways Deutsche Bahn, Ruediger Grube, does not want to fall behind the auto industry and has announced that Deutsche Bahn will operate trains on parts of the railway network with full autonomy “by 2021, 2022, or 2023″.

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The Sky Train is a fully autonomous transit line operating in Vancouver (Image source: Creative Commons)

This means that the technology for autonomous trains exists. There are two major hurdles to a complete shift to driverless trains; legislation and perspective. There is a certain amount of fear in leaving one’s fate to an automated system, no matter how advanced it may be. Further, without the need for a driver, rail conductors could lose their jobs sparking protests like the one in London in 2014 when driverless trains were announced for the London Underground.

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Tesla’s Model 3 unveiled in March 2016 (Image source: Creative Commons)

What about road-based public transportation?

Tesla CEO Elon Musk recently announced “Part Deux” of the all-electric car company’s “Master Plan”. The new plan is to launch a compact SUV, a pick-up truck, a heavy-duty truck and a “high passenger-density urban transport”. This could mean either a bus or a rail-based form of transportation. The company’s Auto Pilot system is already considered a major step towards fully autonomous cars and an advanced version of the technology is sure to be integrated into its new “high passenger-density urban transport”.

Musk also announced a car sharing scheme that would allow Tesla’s autonomous cars to be used to ferry more than just a single person. The ride-sharing system will also allow for the owner to earn money from ferrying other people to their destination, continuing the model that Uber has begun for taxis. In addition, the ride sharing model can be expanded to all autonomous cars being built reducing the need for individual car owners.

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The semi-autonomous Future Bus uses 10 cameras that combine long and short-distance radar to plot a route while networking with traffic light systems to ensure it travels at optimum speeds at all times (Image source: Daimler press site)

Mercedes-Benz recently unveiled the Future Bus, a semi-autonomous bus that uses a system developed on Actros trucks called Highway Pilot, but is named City Pilot for the bus. The Future Bus is meant to operate on Bus Rapid Transit lanes and the German manufacturer considers it as a milestone on the path to completely autonomous buses. The bus is still at the prototype stage, having been on a tested in closed areas and for the first time on a public road over a 30-minute route between Amsterdam and Haarlem. It will now be further tested on public roads in Stuttgart.

The future of autonomous mass transport isn’t as far off as some may think with some regulatory hurdles to be overcome. However, as with any autonomous transport system, there are ethical issues that need to be addressed. What if the car or bus is confronted with a situation where the only options are to run over a pedestrian to save the lives of the occupants? This sort of ethical conundrum is instinctual for human drivers and will have to be programmed into autonomous systems. Maybe in the future, autonomous vehicles’ artificial intelligence will have an answer. Time will tell.

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