Cities around the world jump on the self-driving car bandwagon

Autonomous vehicles will have a major impact on urban transportation. Mayors, transportation companies and urban planners are increasingly taking notice. The number of cities which recognize the benefits of self-driving cars and buses increases rapidly. Below is a list of some cities around the world which have launched or are working to launch activities focused on self-driving cars and buses:

San Francisco, Austin, Columbus, Denver, Kansas City, Pittsburgh, Portland (Oregon):These seven cities strive to be pioneers in integrating self-driving car technology into their transportation network. Each of these cities has already received a 100.000 USD grant from the US Department of Transportation (Smart City Challenge) to refine their earlier proposals on how to transform their urban transportation systems. In June, Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx will award a 50 million USD grant to one of these 7 cities to become the first city to implement self-driving car and related technology into their urban transportation system. San Francisco, for example, has proposed phased plans to deploy autonomous buses and neighborhood shuttles. The city has also gathered pledges of an additional 99 million USD from 40 companies in case it receives the 50 million USD grant.

Milton Keynes, UK: Trials of self-driving pods have already begun in this British city. The electric pods will transport people at low speed between the train station and the city center. Additional UK cities which are experimenting with self-driving car technologies are London (self-driving shuttles, Volvo Drive Me London), Coventry and Bristol.

Singapore: This may be the most active and visionary city with respect to driverless transportation. Several years ago it has launched the Singapore Autonomous Vehicle Initiative, partnered with MIT on future urban mobility and initiated several projects aimed at improving urban transportation systems through self-driving car technology. The city has already set up a testing zone for self-driving cars and is conducting several trials in 2016.

Wageningen / Dutch Province Gelderland (Netherlands): A project with driverless shuttles is already underway. The self-driving Wepods aim to revolutionize public transport and provide a new, cost-effective way to bring public transportation to under-served areas.

Wuhu, China: According to Baidu’s head of self-driving cars, self-driving cars and buses will be introduced into the city of Wuhu over the next five years.

Beverly Hills, USA: The city council of Beverly Hills has just passed a resolution aimed at the long-term adoption of self-driving cars. The resolution starts first activities towards achieving that goal but does not yet commit major resources.

Baidu expects autonomous buses to become first wave of self-driving vehicles

Chinese search engine Baidu has entered the race for self-driving vehicles in 2014. In a partnership with BMW, the company presented an early prototype of an autonomous car at the end of 2015. Baidu’s approach mimics Google in many ways: Like the first Google prototypes of 2010, the car uses the (aging) Velodyne 64 Lidar as its main sensor; Baidu’s approach also relies on detailed mapping which fits well with Baidu’s overall mapping strategy. Baidu also aims to diversify its business model by leveraging its know-how in artificial intelligence and has transferred its auto-related activities into a separate division, a move that Google started last year by restructuring into Alphabet. There are some differences: unlike Google, Baidu does not seem to put much emphasis on the sensors; they don’t seem to experiment with their own sensors and the configuration of sensors indicates that certain situations in which a car may find itself have not been considered yet.

Baidu’s vision of how self-driving vehicles will be adopted also differs somewhat from Google. Whereas Google has focused on individual cars, and is testing electric two-seaters which could easily become robotaxis, Baidu expects the first wave of self-driving vehicles to be autonomous buses or shuttles. In a recent online interview, Andrew Ng, Baid’s Chief Scientist, argued that buses which service a fixed route or a small defined region will be the best starting point. He expects a large number of such vehicles to be in operation within three years (= early 2019) and mass production to be in full swing within five years (= 2021).

Andrew Ng correctly pointed out that such autonomous buses operating on fixed routes or small regions  would have the advantage that care could be taken to ensure that the routes are well maintained, don’t have construction (or the construction site is clearly indicated in the map) etc.

Unfortunately, Andrew Ng’s argument, that driving on predefined routes would enable the vehicles to avoid “corner cases–all the strange things that happen once per 10,000 or 100,000 miles of driving” (source) is flawed. He argues, that machine learning can not prepare for these corner cases and that therefore driving in a restricted well-defined environment is the solution. Unfortunately, corner cases can happen anywhere; it is impossible to guarantee that on well-mapped and well-known routes strange situations can not occur. Pedestrians can suddenly appear in areas that are closed for pedestrians, obstacles may occur on a road, an oil spill can occur, the road can suddenly be flooded etc. Building software that can reliably handle even the most challenging situations is a hard task and needs to consist of a combination of machine learning, an enormous testing program (usually combined with knowledge acquisition and machine learning), careful and very extensive risk analysis and risk modeling, and purpose-built test scenarios which challenge the capabilities of the cars both in simulators and in staged test cases in the real world.

We have pointed out for the past five years that the switch towards shared mobility services based on fully autonomous vehicles will be the great transformation that self-driving car technology will bring. This is the reason why auto makers have been so reluctant to push fully autonomous driving and why it provides avenues for new entrants such as Google, Baidu, EasyMile, Bestmile, Zoox, potentially Apple, and others to capture a significant share of the world’s expenses for personal mobility. There are many reasons why the first fully autonomous vehicles to appear on our roads will be robo taxis or self-driving buses, not the least that many current projects focus on such autonomous mobility services. Examples are: WEPods (Netherlands), CityMobil2 (Greece and EU), One-North (Singapore), Sentosa (Singapore), EasyMile, (USA, California), Google self-driving pods (United States, California and Texas), Milton Keynes driverless pods, (United Kingdom), Ultrapods (United Kingdom), Bestmile (Switzerland), DeLijn, (Belgium), RobotTaxi (Japan), Baidu (China), Yutong Bus (China).

In summary, Baidu’s focus on self-driving buses adds weight to the expectation that shared mobility services based on driverless pods and buses will drive the initial adoption of autonomous vehicles. Both self-driving cars and buses have to solve the problem of autonomous driving and the same technology can applied for both application scenarios. This is why the technology which Google currently refines with their 53 self-driving cars can easily be transferred into self-driving buses and shuttles and why Baidu’s current prototype is not yet a bus but rather a converted BMW. Those pioneers who solve the problem of fully autonomous driving will find enormous business potential for self-driving taxis, self-driving shuttles, self-driving consumer cars, trucks and machines. The race is on!

Chinese company unveils prototype of self-driving bus

After three years of development, one of the leading Chinese bus manufacturers Yutong has sent the prototype of a self-driving city bus on a 32 km long circuit on an intercity road between Zhengzhou and Kaifeng in Henan Province. The bus drove the whole track in regular traffic without any human assistance, attained a peak speed of 68 km/h, passed 26 traffic lights and was able to change lanes and overtake autonomously. This is a significant accomplishment and clearly puts Yutong on the map for autonomous driving.

The bus is equipped with many sensors, including camera and Lidar. Two Lidar sensors are strategically placed in the middle of both sides of the car. This is the best way to monitor the adjacent lanes and mimics the approach Google has taken on their driverless pods (where the side Lidars protrude like the mirrors of conventional cars).


Image source: Yutong, 2015.

The company’s press release points out that significant additional development is required. No further information about the timeline for the introduction of such a bus was provided.

Self-driving buses are very promising and will be a key ingredient of future mobility. On demand-buses will be able to service the complex mobility demands of our societies much better than today’s mix of scheduled buses, trains, and individual cars. They will lower the cost, resource consumption and ecological footprint of mobility. Because significantly lower costs will prompt many travelers to use buses on medium to long-distance trips instead of cars, these buses will increase the effective capacity of highways when measured in people-miles.


Source: Yutong Bus Company, Dailymotion video

Update 2016-02-21: The bus traveled between Zhengzhou and Kaifeng in Henan Province. The approximate route can be looked up on Google maps.

Netherlands first to operate a self-driving shuttle in public traffic?

The competition for low-speed self-driving vehicles in public traffic is heating up. Now the executive council of Dutch ministers has given the green light for running two driverless shuttles in the Dutch city of Wageningen starting in December 2015. The electric shuttles will carry up to 8 persons from a train station to the university on a stretch of approximately 6km on public roads with a maximum speed of 50km/h. Although these will be tests, the shuttles will operate autonomously without safety drivers on board. The shuttles’ operations will be monitored remotely. Before the shuttles be placed in service both chambers of the Dutch parliament need to amend Dutch traffic law. If everything goes according to plan, the world’s first fully autonomous shuttles without backup driver on board could make history in the Netherlands in December!

© Ligier Group

Image: EZ-10 Autonomous Shuttle of Ligier Group, Easymile

Sources: de Gelderlander,

EU wraps up first autonomous bus demonstration in Italy with mixed results

The European CityMobil2 project aims to demonstrate automated road transport systems in Europe, develop guidelines to design and implemented such systems and propose a legal framework for certifying such systems.

One of their key activities is to demonstrate autonomous buses operating in various European cities. From July until today (September 4) two autonomous electric buses supplied by French company Robosoft carried passengers on a 1.3km pedestrian stretch next ta a beach near Oristano in southern Italy. The small-scale demonstration operated on 38 days and transported 1600 persons in 3000 trips.

Each bus was overseen by an experienced bus driver at all times; for legal and insurance reasons all passengers had to register as ‘testers’ before boarding. Participation and acceptance – also on part of the professional bus drivers recruited for the demo (who could have been worried that the buses were an early step towards replacing them) – were very positive.

Valuable lessons were learned during the demo. Not everything worked as expected. For safety purposes, the car’s maximum speed was reduced from the planned 15 to 20km/h to 12km/h. This was due to the large number of pedestrians which were on the road at peak times and technical issues that had to do with sensor range.

The autonomous operation was also limited because of problems with GPS reception. Localization was uniquely based on GPS – which is not a very practical approach for autonomous vehicles (fortunately the next demonstrators will use additional localization mechanisms). Before the demonstrator started, trees had been cut back to ensure good GPS reception but nevertheless during todays live demonstration in a webinar GPS reception was spotty and the driver had to manually override the vehicle.

Another critical problem has hampered the project in the last few days: The sensors started to report non-existing obstacles. This causes the bus to stop immediately. Because of this problem,  the bus had to be driven manually for the live demonstration. Surprisingly the team did not have an explanation for this problem. Robosoft is epxected to analyze the problem to determine the cause. But it is hard to understand that such a critical issue is neither analyzed nor fixed when it arises.

We applaud the hard work that has been put into these demonstrators. But the demonstrator also shows that Europe needs to become much more serious in its efforts to develop autonomous vehicles if  it does not want to get completely outdistanced by the American competition.

Sources: CityMobil2 webinar on 2014-09-04, CityMobil2

Driverless campus shuttle being tested at Swiss university

Students at the Ecole Polytechnique of Lausanne may soon drive across campus in up to 6 driverless shuttles developed by French company Induct. The Navia shuttles, of which the first was delivered to the university in December for testing, operate autonomously with a speed of up to 20km per hour. They are fully electric, are equipped with GPS, laser sensors, 3D cameras and can transport up to 8 persons. The shuttles are ideal for last mile transportation. As the laws in most European countries still require all cars to be operated by a driver they currently only can be operated in private areas – such as airports, business and amusement parks, shopping malls, university campuses etc. By removing the first/last mile hurdle, Induct’s shuttle technology has great potential for making public transport more appealing and effective. Compared to individual autonomous vehicles, they are also much easier to justify economically because the high costs of current autonomous technology (especially 3D sensors) are less of an issues for multi-passenger vehicles which clock so many more operating hours than private cars.

Source and copyright:

Induct is not the only company focusing on autonomous shuttles. Google operates (or has operated?) a fleet of autonomous golf carts on their campus. Robosoft, another French company also offers 2 types of such shuttles, which have been developed in the European CityMobil research project).

The technology certainly has great potential to become a starting point for more efficient and environment-friendly autonomous people movers and buses. Hopefully the legal framework will be adapted soon to allow the operation of such shuttles in public. This applies especially to European countries which have been heavily financing research in such autonomous transportation systems for almost a decade (and are continuing to do so e.g. in the new CityMobil2 project).