The UK will get its first full-size autonomous bus service this summer, if final road testing that begins in the next two weeks goes according to plan.
Known as Project CAVForth for the UK government’s Center for Connected and Autonomous Vehicles (CCAV) and the Forth bridge, over which the buses will travel, it is said to be the most complex test of autonomous on-road mass transit yet undertaken in Europe. The full-size single-deck motorcoaches, five in total, will ply a 22-km (14-mile) route into Edinburgh from Fife, crossing the famous Firth of Forth on the Forth Road suspension bridge. The buses will carry about 36 passengers each and run at SAE Level 4 autonomy, meaning that a safety driver is optional under good driving conditions.
The riding experience will not, however, be entirely human-free. Based on focus group feedback, the bus company will be recruiting “Autonomous Bus Professionals” from their pool of trained drivers. Two of these employees will be on each bus — one in the driver’s seat to monitor the systems, and one to serve as a “Captain,” who will walk the aisle and chat up the passengers. It seems like a good idea to allay any fears the passengers might have about looking up and seeing nobody driving the bus. There’s historical precedence for this; elevator operators were very much a thing even well after automatic controls had been figured out, for precisely the same reason.
The central contention of “Automate the Freight” is that full autonomy will be deployed to commercial trucking long before it becomes mainstream in the consumer space, and when you consider that buses really are nothing more than trucks for human cargo, this project supports that argument. And when you think about it, public transportation is a great test case for full autonomy — the route is well-defined, it’s laid out in an urban setting with a lot of infrastructure, and there’s the bonus of self-loading cargo.
Granted, the stakes are a little higher when you’re carrying freight that has the tendency to sue if anything goes wrong. But somebody has to go first, and it’s encouraging to see that the project’s participants and sponsors have enough confidence in the system to field it. We’ll be watching carefully to see how it turns out.
[via Singularity Hub]