Mobility is one of the biggest challenges facing our towns and regions, characterised by growing needs, evolving uses and business models shifting towards “on demand” services powered by new information and communication technology.
- Crédits : © Chesky_W - Thinkstock
Artificial intelligence (in particular the development of machines and deep learning*) are today opening the way for self-driving personal vehicles but also self-driving transport shuttles, trains and trams.
While autonomous vehicles are expected to reach full maturity in 20 to 30 years on average, at Egis we believe that autonomous shuttles (small capacity public transport) will become a part of our daily lives at a much earlier date. Our recent contracts on the Ultimate Urban Circulator (U²C) in Jacksonwille or the Technolac internal transport service planned in Chambéry, are projects of different sizes and complexity which are all founded on the autonomous shuttle; all of them aim to be operational within 5 years.
The past two years have seen substantial growth in the experimentation of autonomous shuttles. Everyone has been able to either see or ride in one of these driverless shuttles which travel autonomously along predetermined routes.
Technology and the market are moving at pace. While some lines have been in operation for more than five years, tests and commercial operations have flourished in the past two years in Europe, the USA and especially in Australia, where more flexible regulations allow for operations on public roads. In France, experiments have up to now been conducted on sites segregated from road traffic; the first tests interfacing with road vehicles are currently underway or in planning phase.
The main remaining obstacles relate to how the vehicle reacts to crossroads and roundabouts and also how to protect vulnerable users. Interaction between driverless vehicles on the one side and infrastructure and road users on the other, is still in its infancy.
One key success factor is the performance of these shuttles, which so far barely travel faster than walking speed (commercial speed of less than 10 km/h). The extreme caution of manufacturers in progressing incrementally and safely in the level of autonomy of these shuttles is understandable, since it is a media-sensitive subject and any incident could seriously undermine the future appeal of this mode of transport. Indeed, in our mobility studies, we conservatively incorporate a “trust” factor in the decision to take an autonomous vehicle as opposed to a conventional mode of transport.
It is however likely that public transport projects based on autonomous shuttles will soon be offering attractive service proposals due to their better controlled routes, the possibility of reducing their drawbacks by using segregated corridors, or thanks to central regulation and easier interaction with infrastructure (the notion of enriched digital cartography).Technological and regulatory roadmaps will soon allow commercial operations of autonomous shuttles without a driver or an attendant on board to become a reality.
Owing to its ability to adapt to needs, autonomous shuttles could well prove to be the missing link in many transport networks. Through their attractive performance on segregated corridors and their agility in transitioning between these corridors and road traffic, they open the way for new types of service: regular stop or on-demand services, fixed route or catchment area, additional or substitution services, on-demand or multimodal transport, a private or shared means of mobility.
Furthermore, the low carbon footprint of electric autonomous vehicles makes them a natural choice through which to start to kick our current transport habits based on fossil fuels. Plans for hydrogen-powered autonomous vehicles are starting to emerge such as in the Technolac in Chambery, to reduce the drawbacks relating to autonomy and fulfil the goal of zero emissions.
Public transport networks are practically a necessity in dense urban environments but struggle to prove their worth in less dense zones due to lack of competitivity. Autonomous shuttles, with their reduced operating costs, offer a solution that could positively reinforce transport linkage outside cities.
In an urban setting, autonomous shuttles will help to reduce the amount of road traffic if they cater to the last-mile issue without creating additional disruption. This could then generate a virtuous circle, acting as a feeder to mainline services (metro or tram) and freeing up urban space.
* Self learning and recursive adaptation of algorithms
Head of Production Management, Upstream Studies and Innovation Department of the BU Rail
Systems Expert, Upstream Studies and Innovation Department of the BU Rail