magine a city bus rolling down the street with nobody behind the wheel. Or hopping onto a Greyhound during your travels without a driver. It sounds like a futuristic scenario, but a driverless reality isn’t too far off from where we are now.
The topic of autonomous vehicles has rapidly become a hot news item—Uber has announced plans to replace human drivers with robotic ones, major auto manufacturers have started building self-driving vehicles like the Mercedes-Benz Future Truck 2025 and Volvo’s 2016 XC90 SUV. Tesla has already upgraded the autopilot feature of its customers’ existing cars. And of course, Google has built its own self-driving prototype.
The Current State Of Self-Driving Buses
Asia has already got a head start on producing autonomous public transit—China launched the world’s first self-driving bus in August 2015. The bus drives with guidance by cameras, laser radars, and a master controller, along with a human driver behind the wheel ready to take over in case any problems arise. It succeeded in handling complicated maneuvers like lane changes and traffic light responses without human assistance.
Europe isn’t far behind either. Italian consulting firm, Mobility Thinklab, first tested driverless minibusses in 2013. The demonstration took place at a seafront town, a pedestrian environment that included cyclists. However, the biggest obstacle ended up being the surrounding pine trees! They interfered with the GPS guidance system and required the supervisors to take control.
In November 2015, the Netherlands had a self-driving shuttle bus successfully transport passengers on a public road without human assistance. The WEpod took six passengers at 16 miles/hour over 650 feet for its first test run. PostBus, a Swiss bus company, also announced plans to try self-driving busses in Switzerland in 2016 as part of a two-year test to see how well these vehicles will function in real-life traffic.
There haven’t been any self-driving busses on public roads in the United States yet, but with Americans taking over 10 billion bus trips in 2014 alone, that could definitely change soon.
According to the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), over 32,000 individuals died in car crashes in 2014—driver error caused 94% of the accidents.
Driver-related issues include distractions or lack of attention, driving too fast, illegal maneuvers, and poor directional control. With so many possibilities for mistakes to intervene, coupled with uncontrollable environment-related conditions, drivers are at a higher risk of dangerous road accidents than autonomous vehicles.
That also doesn’t include the risks of alcohol-impaired driving, which led to nearly 10,000 deaths in the U.S. in 2014. Self-driving vehicles may help decrease the number of potential fatalities, but as Google’s Chris Urmson has found (he leads the company’s self-driving program): as long as there are other humans driving, there’s a risk of accidents. You can’t stop someone else from slamming into your self-driving car, after all.
The biggest obstacle to autonomous vehicles becoming a reality is the dilemma revolving around federal regulations and self-driving technology. Safety protocols can’t be established without gauging the actual safety of self-driving cars on the road, but these vehicles aren’t allowed on public roads until the proper regulations have been created for them. As Wired flagged, it’s a catch-22.
Due to the NHTSA’s historically reactive stance to new technology, consumers will be able to purchase self-driving vehicles before any federal regulations have passed. This means companies like Google and Tesla will be the ones to influence how driverless vehicles (including busses) will be handled in day-to-day circumstances. Even public infrastructure will be shaped by these tech corporations.
Driverless busses haven’t been tested to nearly the same extent as cars. But that doesn’t mean they’re not an inevitability. After all, we already have similar forms of autonomous public transit like subway trains and monorail systems—it’s just that for busses, there’s no track. Despite this, with such tech powerhouses behind the movement, self-driving busses may just be the next step in the evolution of transport technology after all.