Imagine a city bus rolling down the street with nobody behind the wheel. Or hopping onto a Megabus during your travels without a driver. It sounds like a futuristic scenario, but a driverless reality isn’t too far off from where we are now.
The topic of autonomous vehicles has rapidly become a hot news item—Uber has announced plans to replace human drivers with robotic ones, major auto manufacturers have started building self-driving vehicles like the Mercedes-Benz Future Truck 2025 and Volvo’s 2016 XC90 SUV. Tesla has already upgraded the autopilot feature of its customers’ existing cars. And of course, Google has built its own self-driving prototype.
We’re now getting used to the idea of driverless cars becoming a reality, but what does that mean for? With so many passengers and different stop requirements, buses are a far more complicated endeavour than driverless cars, but they’re already being tested around the world.
THE CURRENT STATE OF SELF-DRIVING
Asia has already got a head start on producing autonomous public transit—China launched the world’s first self-driving bus in August 2015. The bus drives with guidance by cameras, laser radars, and a master controller, along with a human driver behind the wheel ready to take over in case any problems arise. It succeeded in handling complicated manoeuvres like lane changes and traffic light responses without human assistance.
Europe isn’t far behind either. Italian consulting firm, Mobility Thinklab, first tested driverless mini in 2013.
In November 2015, the Netherlands had a self-driving shuttle bus successfully transport passengers on a public road without human assistance.
There haven’t been any self-driving buses on public roads but, that could definitely change soon.
Driver-related issues include distractions or lack of attention, driving too fast, illegal maneuvers, and poor directional control. With so many possibilities for mistakes to intervene, coupled with uncontrollable environment-related conditions, drivers are at a higher risk of dangerous road accidents than autonomous vehicles.
That also doesn’t include the risks of alcohol-impaired driving. Self-driving vehicles may help decrease the number of potential fatalities, but as Google’s Chris Urmson has found (he leads the company’s self-driving program): as long as there are other humans driving, there’s a risk of accidents. You can’t stop someone else from slamming into your self-driving car, after all.
Driverless vehicles can also reduce traffic congestion because they can travel more efficiently. Self-driving buses follow fixed routes, which are simpler to handle than the various complicated routes a taxi or car usually travels.
However, this technology hasn’t developed to the point where autonomous vehicles can drive during serious weather conditions such as heavy snow or rain. Additionally, they can’t read hand signals so while self-driving vehicles do recognize other cars and people on the road, they don’t yet recognize the actions of traffic cops directing traffic or cyclists making a lane change.
Self-driving technology is growing more and more sophisticated, which is good news for people who rely on cars or buses as their main source of transport. But for those who make a living by driving, driverless vehicles are a serious threat.
There are also big network security considerations involved with the automation of driving, so automakers will be held accountable for exploitable software bugs, which can be vulnerable to hacking—something that critics have consistently flagged.
The biggest challenge self-driving technology, however, is its inherent newness. In the U.S., some states have already created (but not yet passed) bills to allow self-driving vehicles on the road, such as California and Connecticut, but only for testing. But because auto companies are still working out the complex technical kinks, no national laws have been enacted to address this new technological development in road transportation.