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Look, no hands - Daimler's semi-autonomous Future Bus

Driverless buses could be a reality by the early part of the next decade, according to Daimler, which launched its Future Bus concept in Amsterdam last month. The Future Bus is based on a remodelled Citaro, conventionally-powered, but with driverless technology that enables it to operate semi-autonomously.

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Before you get too excited, driverless in this context doesn’t mean there isn’t a driver. There is a cab, a steering wheel, pedals - and a human driver. But the bus is capable of operating by itself, courtesy of Daimler’s new CityPilot system that has been developed from its existing HighwayPilot that has already been trialled in trucks.

The Future Bus is now being tested on a live bus route, albeit one that operates partly on a semi-protected busway, linking Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport to Haarlem.The Airport Line 300 is claimed to be Europe’s longest Bus Rapid Transit route with a total length of 37.8km and carrying 125,000 passengers a day.

The Future Bus is capable of travelling autonomously on the route at up to 70km per hour, guided by a combination of camera systems, radar and GPS. The route is a challenging test for a semi-autonomous bus since it crosses a number of road junctions and tunnel sections with the latter meaning that the bus must navigate on cameras alone.

The vehicle communicates directly with the traffic signalling network, as well as recognising specially-adapted traffic lights which show a pair of red lights to indicate ‘stop’ and a pair or white lights for ‘go’.

Daimler reports that CityPilot has been evolved from the HighwayPilot system that it launched two years ago for heavy trucks operating on trunk routes. However, the CityPilot version has to cope with many more potential hazards and obstructions in busy urban areas, and particularly needs to avoid pedestrians and other traffic which may cross a vehicle’s path unexpectedly.

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Under Netherlands law, the driver on the Future Bus on test has to put their hands onto the steering wheel if there is oncoming traffic, and he or she can take over the controls at any time.

The design concept for the bus has a built-in system to indicate whether the bus is being driven by the driver or autonomously, with blue lighting for the latter both inside and out, and white when the driver is in full control.

Daimler is firmly targeting BRT-type systems for its innovation, stating that it is ideal for autonomous driving. CityPilot has four short-range radar sensors and a long-range radar which detects at distances up to 200m. Special ‘mirrorcams’ are fitted to the A-pillars and two lane-tracking cameras are also used, alongside two stereo cameras with a 50m range which allow 3D vision and recognition of obstacles and pedestrians.

The stereo cameras are positioned high above the front axles and the vehicle compares the images with those pre-stored in its memory. The GPS enables the vehicle to be positioned at an accuracy of eight centimetres, according to Daimler, including the ability to pull in very close to the kerb at bus stops.

The semi-autonomous system also controls the operation of the passenger doors; two double-width doors are fitted in the centre of the Future Bus rather than the traditional arrangement of one at the front and rear.

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Once inside, the passenger is confronted with a striking interior that makes clear this is a proof of concept bus, rather than necessarily a practical people-mover. Daimler’s designers have gone to town - literally - by using elements of urban park designs to create curved bench seating and handrails and roof lights that are meant to conjure up the image of leaves on trees in an urban park.

It is an impressive illusion and makes you feel a little sad that it is unlikely to make it into the eventual road-ready designs, although there are evident similarities with the pioneering thinking that operators like Reading Bus are expressing in its similarly-named Bus of the Future concept vehicle.

“City buses play an important role in public transit systems today,” says Hartmut Schick, head of Daimler Buses, “and they can play an even more important role tomorrow.

“A recent study shows that public transport could be used for almost half of the routes travelled in cities, but is currently used for only 15 per cent. So there’s much room for improvement.

“The Mercedes-Benz Future Bus with CityPilot once again demonstrates our leading role in the bus business. The advantages of CityPilot for our customers are clear; only Future Bus operates fuel efficiently and with minimal stress on the engine. This has a positive impact on operating and maintenance costs, vehicle lifetime and availability.”

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And that is the nub of Daimler’s drive towards autonomous vehicles; it asserts that a driverless system can be more efficient than one under human control. 

“It’s always braking, accelerating and shifting gears in an optimum manner,” says Wolfgang Bernhard, Daimler Truck and Bus board member. “This technology never gets tired, it never gets distracted. Day or night, it’s always 100 per cent on.”

But Daimler stresses that the model is semi-autonomous, not completely driverless; the driver is always monitoring the system and can take over the controls at any time. Of course, there might be some, particularly in the UK’s commercialised bus industry, who might wish for a transition to fully driverless buses as a logical conclusion of the changes that started with getting rid of conductors some decades ago. But others with a stronger customer-facing interest, might be glad to hear that there is still a human at the helm; try getting a computerised system to smile at you.

And with the launch coming shortly after the Nice terrorist attack, there were inevitable questions put to the Daimler team about the possibility of hacking into an autonomous system. During the launch workshops, the response dismissed this as an impossibility, but with security forces across Europe now undoubtedly looking at the potential use of large vehicles as terrorist weapons, one imagines that there will need to be a rather more forthright answer before such technology gets anywhere near serial production.

Daimler is not always the first to launch technologies, often preferring a steady-eddy approach to ensure that whatever it promises can be produced on an industrial scale for its worldwide markets. With its Future Bus however, Daimler is positioning itself as a pioneer. The impressive concept vehicle is not necessarily what will eventually emerge, but this initiative is likely to spawn offshoots that may deploy elements of the autonomous guidance system in the next generation of vehicles rather than a fully- or even semi-driverless bus.

www.daimler.com

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