A small electric bus with no brake or accelerator pedal, no steering wheel and not even a driver, travels on the streets of Helsinki by using sensors and software, where it is tested for now. As the project is at its beginning, a person is still stationed on board ready to hit a red “stop” button in an emergency.
At a time when self-driving cars are beginning to make progress — most notably with a trial program that the ride service Uber began in Pittsburgh this fall — the bus represents a different approach to technologically advanced transportation.
A driverless car, after all, is still a car, carrying at best a few people. By transporting many passengers on what could be very flexible routes, driverless buses could help reduce the number of cars clogging city streets.
Driverless buses like this one are being used in private, controlled settings, for example to shuttle students around a campus or employees on the grounds of an industrial plant. Helsinki is one of the first cities to run so-called autonomous buses on public roads in traffic.
The Helsinki bus is a project of several universities with cooperation and money from government agencies and the European Union. The two-year, $1.2 million project, called Sohjoa, is just one manifestation of a movement to reduce the use of cars, and the traffic jams and greenhouse gases that come with them.
In September, a Sohjoa bus, which can accommodate up to 12 passengers sitting and standing, made its debut on a straight, quarter-mile route in the city’s Hernesaari district, turning 180 degrees at both ends. The trip connected a popular sauna and restaurant at one end with several restaurants at the other, and attracted a small stream of curious riders.
The buses are not as sophisticated as Uber’s self-driving cars, or those being developed by Google and other companies. Those are essentially “free-range” vehicles, able to travel just about anywhere by comparing what their sensors detect about roads and surroundings with a database that has been compiled by the cars over time. (Before Uber began offering rides in Pittsburgh, for example, employees drove its cars around the city for months, collecting data.)
The buses, made by a French company, are “taught” a route by having operators drive them using steering and acceleration controls on a small box. The route is then fine-tuned with software. In operation, the buses have laser sensors and GPS to keep them on the route, and can deviate only if alternate routes have been “learned” as well.
While the buses are designed to travel at about 15 m.p.h., or 25 kilometers pe hour, they are running at half that for the Helsinki trials. Lateral movement is also restricted; if a car is double-parked along the route, for instance, the bus must wait until the car moves or the bus operator steers around it using the control box.
Those restrictions provide an underwhelming experience for now. The most excitement occurs when a vehicle like the white van crosses too closely, or when a motorist approaches from the rear and, impatient with the bus’s tortoiselike pace, swerves around it.
For now, the project is focusing on so-called last mile service — taking riders from a stop on a more conventional bus line to a point closer to their homes, shops, offices or schools. An autonomous bus, presumably going faster, could be useful, especially because of a quirk in Finland’s motor vehicle laws.
Helsinki has already seen several efforts to use technology to change public transportation. One was an on-demand minibus service, Kutsuplus, that was operated by the regional transport agency for four years. Using a smartphone, customers could choose pickup and drop-off locations. The service’s software then combined requests from several customers and calculated an optimal route for one of its 15 minibuses.