Mercedes-Benz debuts its self-driving bus

A Mercedes-Benz self-driving bus navigated 12 miles of traffic to connect Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport with the nearby town of Haarlem.

Daimler AG/
Hands-free driving. Mercedes-Benz’s almost fully autonomous "Future Bus" successfully completed a 12-mile route in The Netherlands without any driver involvement.

Ride-hailing apps and autonomous cars promise more convenient and comfortable travel, but that doesn’t mean the end of public transportation. Mercedes-Benz passed a key milestone Monday in using new technology to revamp tried-and-true buses.

Mercedes-Benz’s almost fully autonomous "Future Bus" successfully completed a 12-mile route in The Netherlands without any driver involvement. Driving from Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport to the town of Haarlem, the bus successfully navigated turns, tunnels, and traffic lights.

The concept bus’s self-driving technology is called CityPilot. A human driver can still take control at any point, but the bus’s monitoring systems, detailed map data, GPS tracking, and vehicle-to-object communication system allows it to operate itself in nearly every situation, even at speeds up to 43 miles an hour.

With the number of people living in cities growing, one of the goals of future public transportation is to make it possible for urban travelers to move for efficiently (avoiding or even preventing gridlock) and more safely. Autonomous buses are seen as a possible step in that direction. 

Mercedes' CityPilot system recognizes obstacles in the road and pedestrians crossing the street and brakes autonomously. It also pulls up to bus stops within two inches of the curb of its own accord, automatically opening and closing the doors. The one limit for CityPilot is complex intersections with oncoming traffic, where drivers must still take control, as Motor Authority reported.

The 12-mile test-drive pales in comparison to the more than 1.5 million miles Google’s self-driving cars have been test-driven, and Business Insider predicts 10 million self-driving cars will be on the road by 2020. But public transportation is an especially promising application of the self-driving technology, since buses tend to travel along set routes and stick to slower speeds than cars.

Mercedes hasn’t said when the technology demonstrated in the Future Bus will be available, even as other versions of automated public transportation are much farther along.

Local Motors, an Arizona-based start-up, developed a self-driving 3D-printed minibus named Olli that’s currently making test drives around Maryland. Local Motors partnered with IBM’s supercomputer platform Watson to design the autonomous bus that users can summon with a mobile app. Olli eliminates regular bus stops altogether: Riders climb aboard and tell the vehicle their intended destination, and Olli determines the best route.

Trains, which operate in an even more controlled environment, are already taking the lead in autonomous transportation.

One of the world’s largest metro systems is eliminating the need for human operators, Max Lewontin reported for The Christian Science Monitor in April. The managing director of Delhi Metro Corporation predicts riders in India will be able to travel in a driverless train by the end of the year. Lewotin wrote,

While fully automated trains operated on only 6 percent of the world’s total railway transit length in 2013, according to researchers from Imperial College London, several large systems, including the Copenhagen Metro, lines in Vancouver, São Paulo, Dubai, Paris, Seoul and parts of Italy and Japan can all operate completely automatically.

Mercedes's Future Bus also has an interior that offers a respite from busy city streets, with a ceiling designed to resemble a forested canopy and displays for entertainment and media.

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