Helsinki autonomous bus

An EasyMile EZ10 autonomous minibus on the streets of Helsinki, Finland.

Helsinki, Finland, is testing autonomous buses.

Two electric Easymile EZ-10 buses are being tested along a fixed route in Helsinki’s Hernesaari neighborhood, Barbara Eldredge wrote for Curbed. The buses, which appear to be the same back and front, hold up to 12 passengers each, and travel only 6 mph. This is the first test of self-driving buses on public streets anywhere in the world.

The test allows members of the public to get on or off the buses at certain points along the route. Finland is becoming a popular place for the testing of self-driving vehicles because it is one of the only countries in the world that does not require every vehicle on public roads to have a driver.

Harry Santamala, who is heading the road test project for Helsinki’s Metropolia University of Applied Sciences, said:

We need to have human drivers, but the human doesn’t need to be physically in the vehicle. You can remotely supervise a fleet. When this regulation was written in the 70s, there was no mention the driver has to hold the steering wheel or be in the car. So the Minister of Transportation decided with the government agency that, for testing purposes, we can allow supervised autonomous operation on the road.

Backup Drivers

The goal is to better understand how self-driving buses will work in real-world traffic. Although the law does not require a driver to be on board, the test project places a driver on both of the test buses to prevent vehicle accidents.

So far, the human drivers have only needed to take over a few times, usually when they felt the buses needed a little distance from something happening, like a truck making a U-turn. The buses would have stopped by themselves, but the drivers were being especially cautious.

Making Car Ownership Obsolete

Helsinki is two years into a 10-year plan to make personal car ownership in the city obsolete. Santamala said Helsinki is not looking to replace large, human-driven buses with these small self-driving ones. The plan is to use the smaller ones on roads that are too narrow for larger buses or in areas where the population density is too thin to merit a large bus. They are being used for short-term travel, such as transporting people from a metro station to a bus stop, Kate DiNardi wrote for MeriTalk.

On its website, the City of Helsinki said the testing of the buses will continue in other cities until the first snowfall, then continue in the spring.

Autonomous Vehicles and Traffic

In another Curbed article, Alissa Walker writes that a simulation of traffic in Lisbon, Portugal, found that current traffic conditions improved “by nearly every metric.” The simulation, by the International Transport Forum (ITF), replaced existing buses and private cars with self-driving (or merely shared) 8-passenger taxis and 16-passenger taxi buses.

The simulation found there was less congestion, fewer emissions, and the city needed fewer vehicles. In addition, riders were happier because they didn’t have to wait or make transfers, freeing up their time. However, in another article about the ITF study, David Roberts wrote for Vox that those benefits are possible only if all private vehicles in a city are replaced by shared ones, a scenario he called “wildly unrealistic.”

Photo courtesy EasyMile.

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