Earlier this month Jim Brophy shared with us the Technobus Gulliver 520, which is smaller than many passenger cars. This week a new autonomous bus service trial was launched at LaTrobe University in Melbourne’s northern suburbs – and it is smaller! But there is a lot more to the story than just size.
The buses are supplied by Navya SAS, a French company started by Christophe Sapet and is now majority-owned by component supplier Valeo. Navya have been producing and testing autonomous cars since 2014, and these buses have been available commercially since 2016.
They are 4.75m or 187″ long, 2.11m / 83″ wide and 2.65m / 104″ tall, to provide standing head room. The bus weighs 2400kg / 5290lb with a maximum weight of 3450kg / 7605lb. The electric motor has a maximum power rating of 25kW / 33hp, which results in a maximum potential speed of 45km/h or 28mph, however actual service speed is usually 25km/h / 15mph or so. Powered comes from a 33kWh LiFePO4 battery pack and charging is either by cable or induction – which would be handy if loops were installed at the bus’ termini or even stops. The rate of induction charging is half that by cable.
They are rated to carry 15 seated and standing passengers. Under the SAE autonomous vehicle categorisation, the buses are Category 5 – without conventional controls for a driver although the La Trobe buses have a safety attendant and there are two emergency stop buttons.
As you would expect there is an extensive array of sensors and systems as shown above. There are two 3D Lidars and six 2D, plus front and rear cameras for the driving and GPS and wheel sensors so the bus knows where it is. What looks like a method of connecting a series of buses together in a platoon (to use Tesla terminology) is actually a pair of Lidar sensors. Being fully-autonomous the bus has the ability not only to avoid vehicles or pedestrians that may stray into its path, but also to drive around obstacles.
These buses are not ready for general public transit-type use, but are used on specific routes in low-ish speed environments such as university campuses or airport carparks. The La Trobe route is approximately a kilometre, with half a dozen or so stops. Not only do the lower operating speeds reduce the risk, but they also provide a slightly-controlled operating environment compared to the wider world.
One prominent fleet in the USA is in downtown Las Vegas, where on the new bus’ very first day it was involved in an incident – too minor to be called a crash – where an articulated truck reversing into a loading bay struck the front of the bus. Perhaps a manned bus would have avoided this by sounding its horn or reversing away from the danger; although I wonder if one of the passengers hit the emergency stop button? (Ed: No. The bus had already stopped well before the truck hit it. There was an attendant on board, but there was nothing for him to do. The bus did exactly what it was supposed to) Also just over a year ago one of the Swiss buses hit the open tailgate of a delivery van.
This is a pretty fascinating development, and shows where the state of the art of autonomous vehicles is (or at least was a year or so ago) – still pretty limited. I heard someone connected with the project interviewed on the radio, including being asked whether university students will prank the bus to get it to stop for example, and it sounds that the autonomous system will be the most timid driver you have ever seen on the road. Fair enough in early stages, and why the application is limited.
You may have noticed that essentially all the launch and promotional photos show perfect weather; perhaps readers who have encountered the buses at the University of Michigan may report on how they deal with not-so-perfect weather? When radar cruise control systems won’t operate in poor weather, I have to wonder how these buses would cope.
Navya is next rolling out an autonomous 6-passenger cab. The vehicle is slightly smaller and lighter, and largely shares its technical specifications with the bus, but it represents a significantly greater challenge as it moves away from the extensively-mapped routes the buses operate on.
It is interesting that while there are a few companies making a lot of noise about testing autonomous cars, that there are already autonomous vehicles in use around the world. As the Swiss accident illustrates, there are still refinements to be made before the existing systems will be safe to operate in wider environments and at higher speeds, but if you were to compare it to the development of the automobile in the late 19th century I think things are looking promising.