Driverless bus hits the road in the Netherlands

Dutch authorities announced that a six-passenger driverless bus without a steering wheel or pedals called a WEpod would begin tests in the small agricultural town of Wageningen.

Press photo/WEpods
The interior of a WEpod self-driving electric bus is shown on Jan. 28, 2015, during a demonstration of how the buses will be used in Wageningen, the Netherlands.

Carmakers and proponents of self-driving cars have long championed the promise of self-driving cars as a sort of personalized public transportation, greatly increasing mobility options for older and disabled people.

Last week, the Netherlands put that theory to the test, launching a trial of an electric, driverless bus called a WEpod, which carries six passengers, on the campus of Wageningen University in the central Dutch agricultural town of Wageningen.

Unlike other efforts in the US, the bus, which for now will carry a team of test engineers, has no driver and doesn’t come equipped with a steering wheel and pedals that would allow a human driver to take control — a feature Google has been pushing for in California.

“Today, we are pioneers,” said Melanie Schultz van Haegen, the country’s minister of infrastructure and the environment in a speech announcing the effort last Thursday. “We’re not talking about knowledge that is readily available. This is about learning by doing… We’re challenging ourselves to let this new reality and existing laws collide.”

The country’s cabinet has already approved testing of self-driving cars. The WEpod models, which are made by French-Indian venture EasyMile, can travel up to 25 miles per hour, but will currently be limited to 15 m.p.g. for safety reasons and won’t be driven in snow or rain.

The buses, which use a combination of lasers, GPS sensors and preset 3-D maps of particular routes to navigate through traffic, will eventually be used as regular public transportation over a 4 mile route in Wageningen, the center of a region sometimes known as “Food Valley.”

“We want to be careful," Jan Willem van der Wiel, the project’s head, told Bloomberg. “We first want the system to operate well on nice days like today," before testing the vehicles in heavy precipitation or fog.

In the US, regulatory hurdles have been a large obstacle for carmakers and technology companies hoping to test autonomous cars. So far, they’ve been able to test the cars on public roads and closed courses in a handful of states, but plans to make them available to the public appear to be a long ways off, partly due to the safety concerns among regulators and lawmakers. Partially autonomous features, such as remote parking, however, are becoming more common.

But driverless public transportation — or at least subways that aren’t accidentally without a driver — hasn't been widely discussed in the US. In East London, by contrast, the Docklands Light Railway moves automatically, though there is an operator on board who moves through the train.

In 2012, London Mayor Boris Johnson threatened the adoption of fully driverless trains on the London Underground while engaged with a battle with the city's Tube drivers over a series of strikes, but that effort appears to be moving intermittently since then.

The Netherlands took additional steps to get WEpod buses on the road, Ms. Schultz van Haegen said, noting that the Dutch Vehicle Authority (RDW), which approves vehicle registrations, made exemptions for the vehicles. In the US, national regulations have proved elusive, with Anthony Foxx, the secretary of transportation, saying he hopes to release guidelines for autonomous cars within the next six months.

In April, the Netherlands will plan to hold the first trial of driverless semi-trucks at the port in Rotterdam, Europe's biggest port. The country is hoping to send cargo via automated vehicles on roads throughout Europe by 2019. Before then, the regulators want to tackle safety and privacy concerns around the vehicles.

“During this time, I want to put all kinds of issues associated with self-driving vehicles high on the agenda," Schultz van Haegen said last week. "Issues like privacy, data ownership, insurance and infrastructure. What is the government doing? And what about the market?”

“You really are the trailblazers here in Wageningen," she added. "I hope this test phase yields plenty of new insights. I’m looking forward to my first ride."

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