A world where the most precise and intuitive of actions is left to the cogs of computers is just a few years away, with predictions that there’ll be 10 million cars with some kind of self-driving feature on the roads by 2020, and a group of the brightest Silicon Valley bulbs going for a more modest 2022. While convincing the consumer will be the next big challenge for those already pouring time and money into developing autonomous and semi-autonomous vehicles (powerhouses Audi, Mercedes Benz, BMW Tesla and Google are all racing toward what we imagine will be man-less chequered flag), what urban populations don’t need convincing of is the importance, efficiency and utility of public transport – an industry largely still operating within the confines of antiquated engineering and the business models of the 1800s. But as more and more global populations find themselves in densely populated, fast-paced cities, public transport needs to be rethought for the 21st century.
Fully automated trains have been around for some time now, with Japan’s Kobe New Transit kicking off the trend in 1981, and since then Grade of Automation 4 (trains that are capable of operating automatically at all times, including door closing, obstacle detection and emergency situations as described by International Association of Public Transport) has been found on every continent with the exception of Africa. Grades 2 and 3 are more populated yet, defined as trains that run automatically but require some kind of staff or operator for door closing and emergency situations, with examples dating back to the 1960s and North Africa’s Algeria joining the party in 2011. But that makes sense, right? A train stays on tracks, solitary for the most part, and even the least technologically-inclined can wrap their head around the sensors and mechanisms needed to remove humans from the equation. “The technology has been around for 20 to 30 years at least,” David B. Clarke, director of the Center for Transportation Research at the University of Tennessee told Vice, earlier this year, pointing to efficiency and the near-elimination of human error (the cause of many, if not most, train accidents and derailments) as successes of automation.
Things get a lot more complicated, though, when we’re talking about the big bad streets and the innumerable variables an average pedestrian encounters, let alone a driver. While the technology needed to connect cars to other cars and an array of sensors and data sources on the roads already exist, they’re far from perfecting a seamless, safe and intelligent driving experience. However, whenever self-driving cars come along, there’s much to indicate that they’ll indeed feed into the revitalization of public transport is experiencing now in emerging cities. When we imagine a world where nobody drives, we can also imagine a world where nobody bothers buying cars, and thus services like Uber and Lyft become new modes of public transport, especially with the increasing adoption of ride sharing models. In fact, a University of Texas at Austin study projected that 20,000 people can be served by just 1,700 shared autonomous vehicles. That’s almost 12 people per car which is impressive – but not as impressive as a fully automated bus.
Widely regarded the lowliest form of public transport, innovation – particularly in South America – has seen a resurgence of the humble bus. There isn’t an urban professional around that hasn’t studied Bogotá’s TransMilenio bus rapid transit (BRT) network, spearheaded by re-elected mayour and current liveable city advocate Enrique Peñalosa. The idea is to prioritize bus mobility in the city, and Bogotá’s BRT does that by providing a special lane for buses, with elevated platforms to speed up boarding without holding up traffic. Add to that the smartcard ticketing system that’s entering more and more public transport systems, eliminating queues and saving time, and it’s easy to see why neighbouring Latin cities are picking up efficient and financially accessible model. In fact, nearly 200 cities worldwide have some kind of bus priority system in place (though, admittedly, few are as defined and advanced as Bogotá’s), serving 32 million citizens. Given the dedicated lanes and data-connected stations increasingly adopted to provide a system as streamlined as the TransMilenio BRT, we can begin to imagine the locomotivization, if you will, of our city streets, where bus lanes begin to function more like railroads.
In September 2015, China test drove its first fully automated bus through the city of Zhengzhou, filled with passengers and a ‘driver’ lounging, arms crossed behind his head, for added effect. Equipped with cameras, lasers and an integrated navigation system, it didn’t even need a BRT network in place to reach its destination successfully, showing its ability to perform complex driving actions like changing lanes, overtaking other vehicles and responding to traffic lights. Soon after, pioneering ‘smart city’ Singapore announced it will testing fully automated buses on its roads in 2016. Self-driving shuttle buses are already in operation on a high-tech French university campus and between stations on Helskinki Ring Rail Line, and the same robotics-fuelled engineering firm has just signed a deal to roll out their 12-person microbus in a Californian business park. Meanwhile, similar technology has just been adopted by the Swiss city of Sion’s main public transport operator, hoping to roll out a fleet by the first quarter of 2016. Good public transport will always be a pillar of a well-functioning, liveable city and if we take Mayor Peñalosa’s echoing maxim to be true; that “an advanced city is not a place where the poor move about in cars, rather it’s where even the rich use public transportation,” then it’s matter of when cities board the self-driving bus, not why.