Robot buses in operation on campus
In November, anyone is welcome to hop on a robot bus on the campus of Tampere University of Technology. The SOHJOA project is testing the operation of automated vehicles in the Finnish conditions.
Robot buses are developed safety first. Therefore, it currently rides at the speed of 11 km/hour while its theoretical maximum speed is 40 kilometres per hour. In addition to the ‘driver’, the maximum capacity of the bus is eight passengers.
WHO? Doctoral Student Lasse Nykänen, 29
- Education: Master of Science in Technology, Civil Engineering, TUT, 2013. Doctoral student since 2014.
- Career: TUT’s Rock Laboratory 2011, then research assistant in two Verne projects. Full-time employment at Verne since summer 2012.
- Family: Wife and daughter Isla, born this summer.
- Hobbies: Football, gym, jogging, cycling, kiteboarding.
“The ride in this electric low-floor bus is safe and steady. One way to describe it is like taking a lift,” says Doctoral Student Lasse Nykänen from TUT’s Transport Research Centre Verne. He has tested the French-made vehicles in Helsinki where they were used for tourists. Now they have been rented for project experiments at TUT.
The route in the Hervanta district runs from the TUT campus to Shopping Centre Duo, a distance of roughly 500 metres. As of yet, the buses do not run without any human involvement, however: a ‘driver’ is always on board to monitor the ride and take over if needed. Three students have been recruited for the task.
Finland to lead the way?
Even globally, these experiments with robot bus operation as part of authentic traffic are among the very first. In Finland, robot buses have previously only operated in enclosed areas, such as the Housing Fair area in Vantaa.
“The Finnish legislation allows for remote driving and therefore also driverless rides. This is one of the reasons we are able to lead the way in robot-assisted transportation.”
Fully automated buses are still somewhere far in the future, but in Nykänen’s view, traffic as we know it today may seem completely different as soon as 2020–2030.
Lasse Nykänen is eager to incorporate smartness into traffic. He readily admits that the SOHJOA project has actually made every boy’s dream come true: riding one’s one robot bus.
“Lorries, for example, may be able to drive autonomously in certain motorway portions. In future, robot buses together with the Finnish Kutsuplus invention could also make public transportation services affordable enough for rural areas.”
The SOHJOA project is administered by Metropolia University of Applied Sciences and funded by the European Structural Fund, Finnish Transport Agency and Trafi as well as the cities of Helsinki, Espoo and Tampere.
“The city of Tampere is highly forward-looking and active in smart traffic development. A cluster has been set up in which the city, research institutions and dozens of companies work together very closely and openly.”
GPS on the roof, lasers on the corners
“The robot bus uses GPS positioning. It rides along a preprogrammed route, as if on virtual rails. Along the route, it is able to react to other traffic due to lasers fitted on its corners.”
For now, the robot buses are unable to ride on snow, but this restriction will be overcome as soon as further advancement is made with positioning precision. The precision must be in the order of centimetres to enable these buses to operate.
Some of the scheduled rides have been cancelled due to the weather conditions. At this stage in the experiments, mere snowfall is enough to prevent robot buses from operating, as the radar on the bus perceives snowflakes as obstacles.
“This is a limitation we have been well aware of: the bus operation is subject to the prevailing weather conditions. We will restore the operation in November if the weather gets warmer,” Nykänen promises.
Learning across all areas
The SOHJOA project covers studies and tests on everything from bus battery life to the overall traffic infrastructure. At TUT, a particular focus is placed on the way that self-directed buses find their place within the wider traffic system: how to set up the infrastructure, how to market and promote the bus traffic and how to enable the buses to fit in as part of the whole traffic system. It is also crucial that the road users get used to the robot buses.
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“The ultimate goal is to improve the accessibility, efficiency and competitive edge of public transportation. In Tampere, robot buses could serve as part of the feeder traffic for the tram, for example.”
The robot bus also constitutes an open research platform that companies can use to test their own product and service ideas.
“One of our current partners is Vionice, which offers traffic infrastructure monitoring data. Nokia has also expressed its interest in setting up collaboration.”