Forget Self Driving Cars: When Will Autonomous Public Transport Arrive?

15-06-2018 |   |  By Christian Cawley

Almost all conversation about the future of motoring centers on the idea of a self-driving car. Several projects have been launched, most famously Waymo, owned by Google's parent company Alphabet. But who really wants a driverless car? What's the point?

Vehicle autonomy isn't out of the question, but it isn't particularly popular. In a recent UK survey, 48% of respondents revealed that they'd rather keep their current car than switch to a self-driving vehicle. Only 27.7% answered in favor, revealing that the technology still has a long way to go.

So where to next? Well, public transport is the ideal arena for autonomous vehicles. Can robot controlled buses, trams, and trains revolutionize public transportation systems?


Long Distance Trains & Urban Metro Systems

Meanwhile, urban train networks, almost always running underground, have been utilizing Automated Train Operation (ATO) since 1967, with the opening of London's Victoria line. This underground service retains a driver in the cab, but like other automated guideway transit systems, the driver is on hand purely to deal with failures or emergencies.

Classified as the second Grade of Automation (GoA2), ATO has been superseded in more recent years by Driverless Train Operation (DTO, classified as GoA3) and Unattended Train Operation (or UTO, which is classified as GoA4). While the former retains a driver-capable attendant, the latter is fully automated, without any personnel present.

Across Europe, Asia, North America, and South America, automated transit networks have been in operation since the 1980s, slowly increasing capacity, speed, and routes, while simultaneously abandoning on-train staff.

Autonomous public transport is already here; it just isn't getting the credit it deserves.


Buses and Trams

Trams run on rails; buses do not (well, not these days). Can automated bus systems work? The University of Nevada and the Nevada Advanced Autonomous Systems Innovation Center have been researching self-driving buses over the past few years, and while the technology isn't ready, it is making inroads. As with cars, buses need sensors and cameras; bigger buses need more monitoring equipment than smaller ones.

While Tesla boss Elon Musk has suggested that the end may be nigh for the bus, which will instead shrink and abandon fixed embarkation points (essentially turning into Johnny Cabs, as predicted in the 1990 movie Total Recall), the teams in Nevada (also involved are the regional transit agency, State Department of Motor Vehicles, and electric bus manufacturer Proterra) are optimistic. Previous studies have been encouraging, with Washington State's Pierce Transit equipping buses with sensors and cameras from Mobileye.

Buses have been shown to be safer when automated, than when driven by a human. In Washington State, Pierce Transit reported 43 fewer pedestrian near misses on its automated buses. Given the costs of compensating injuries on public transport, there's a sure chance that metropolitan zones will be adopting autonomous buses as soon as they're ready to go mainstream.

Trams, meanwhile, are considered easier than cars to automate, yet tougher than trains. They could be last out of the blocks, or even abandoned altogether in the brave new world of public transport automation.


No Johnny Cabs Just Yet

Driving demands control. Ceding authority to make decisions, maneuver, and decide upon a route is the antithesis of control. It seems that Alphabet, after years researching autonomous cars with the Google Self-Driving Car Project, has recognized this.

Waymo (as the Google Self-Driving Car Project was re-christened in 2016) has recognized this, and is described by Alphabet as "a self-driving tech company with a mission to make it safe and easy for people and things to move around". In May 2018, Waymo announced plans to roll out driverless cabs across Phoenix, Arizona, before the end of the year.

On the other hand, Uber is shelving its own self-driving car business, following a fatal road traffic accident in Tempe, Arizona in May 2018. We're still some way from reliable, safe, trustworthy self-driving cars.


The Future of Automated Public Transport: Rails

Self-driving car technology may well be months away from perfection. But selling it as anything other than an optional feature for long journeys is unlikely. Cruise control and speed limiters are already available in most vehicles, and are barely used.

Few drivers are prepared to cede control of their vehicle. Whether this is about ego, or personal responsibility, it's a phenomenon that is unlikely to go away. But self-driving public transport, where travelers have already relinquished responsibility for the journey, is where self-driving technology can, and should, succeed.

Following the success of automated urban metro systems around the world, it seems likely that autonomy-on-rails is the gateway to driverless vehicles.


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By Christian Cawley

Christian Cawley is a freelance technology writer, with a background in healthcare and financial services industries. He writes extensively online, and contributes to print periodicals and specials.

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