Would you ride on a driverless bus?
There will be no arguing with the driver on this bus. After all, the rides are free. And there is no driver, anyway.
Trikala is a rural town. It is located in northern Greece. It has been chosen to test a driverless bus in real traffic conditions. This will happen for the first time. The test is part of a European project. Its goal is to transform mass transport. It wants to wean cities off oil dependency over the next 30 years.
Trials of the French-built buses will last through late February. They are called CityMobil2 buses.
Over the past year, CityMobil2 has been tried out near its base in La Rochelle in western France. More testing has taken place on a campus in Lausanne, Switzerland. It has also taken place near Helsinki, Finland. Each site provides controlled conditions. So there were no accidents.
But Greece is a country of narrow, winding, hilly streets. There are stray dogs, bicycle riders and impatient drivers. The buses are up against real traffic. The Greek government had to change its laws to allow the testing. And the city had to build a dedicated bus lane. It took away downtown parking spaces.
The robot buses do not look like science fiction vehicles. They are more like golf cart meets ice cream truck. Still, heads turn as the skinny, battery-powered buses hum through the streets. They seat only 10 people. Each is guided by GPS and extra sensors. The sensors include lasers and cameras. They send live data to a control center.
The buses go no faster than 12 1/2 miles per hour. But the trials in Trikala (pronounced TREE-kah-lah) might represent a major advance for automated transport.
"There were cities bidding for this project all over Europe. They offered relatively restricted urban areas. But we said we could make it happen in a downtown environment. And we won," said Odisseas Raptis. He heads the city's digital project department. It is called e-Trikala. "We have a 2.4-kilometer (1.5-mile) route, the bus route. It is mixed with traffic, with pedestrians, with bicycles, with cars. That has not been done before."
Vasilis Karavidas is the chief technician for the project in Greece. He trained with Robosoft. It is the company that made the bus. The firm is based in the southwest French town of Bidart.
The driverless buses are fully automated. They have onboard navigation and obstacle detection systems. But each vehicle will be monitored by a driver. Those individuals will be in the control center. That operator can override the system, Karavidas said.
"It is as if they are in here and they can stop the bus if they want to. If something goes wrong," he said.
The buses are currently running without passengers. Full testing will start later in October. That is when a fiber-optic network allowing faster data transmission will be completed. Six battery-powered vehicles will eventually be used in Trikala. It is a farming town of 80,000. The town has become hooked on high-tech.
Trikala already has already tested pilot medical programs. They include schemes to relay heart test data from home to the doctor's office. And they also use tracker devices for Alzheimer patients. In the center of the city, a "digital tree" has been installed. Its solar panels allow benches to carry phone-charging outlets.
The 28-nation European Union is targeting gasoline use for city transport. It is one area where it wants to reduce carbon emissions. Oil prices and city populations are expected to rise in the coming decades. Because of that, a major shift to battery power and more shared transport could blur the line between private and public vehicles.
Senior transport analyst Philippe Crist works at the International Transport Forum. It is a think-tank based in Paris. He says transport trends are hard to predict as the world moves more toward automation.
"We too often look at technological changes in isolation," Crist said. "There is a good chance that these technologies will create entirely new uses that we can only poorly grasp today. The reality is that everything is changing around these technologies. And it is plausible that society may lose interest in owning cars or using fixed-service public transport. Especially if these technologies allow better alternatives to emerge."
Models run by the think tank suggest that city transport could be made a lot more efficient.
Crist said researchers looked at "shared and route-optimized on-call taxi-like services replacing all car and bus trips in a mid-sized European city. We found that these systems could deliver almost the same mobility as today but with 95 percent fewer vehicles."
Driverless cars and buses offer an easier way to improve traffic flow. At the same time, the driverless vehicles aim to do away with human error. That has transport developers working at both ends. They are adding automatic features to regular vehicles while raising the bar for those that will have no driver at all.
So far, the CityMobile2 has had mixed reviews on the streets of Trikala. Not everyone is happy to lose parking spots or replace human jobs with machines. Still, retiree Michalis Pantelis said he was proud that his city was selected for the testing.
"I think it is wonderful. Think how many people will come to Trikala to see this. It is new and innovative," he said. His comments came moments after a driverless bus passed by. "It reminds me of the toy cars my grandchildren play with."
CRITICAL THINKING QUESTION
What advantages does a driverless bus offer?
Write your answers in the comments section below