Technology Transport

All Aboard the Self-Driving Bus: Is Full Automation in Public Transport Feasible?

 As cities expand and the pressure to create environmentally friendly transport systems increase there is a mounting urgency for our urban transport to adapt. But is it changing fast enough? Jonathan Wilkins discusses the potential benefits of automated public transport.

The imaginative public transport ideas of recent years, have gathered both interest and controversy. Remember Elon Musk’s subsonic train, Hyperloop, and China’s straddling bus? Despite the oddity of some of these ideas, the reality is that automated public transport has real potential for changing urban mobility.

Technology that makes driving easier is already embedded in everyday life. There is a lot of buzz around the arrival of driverless cars, particularly since Google first revealed its prototype; optimists assure us that by 2025 entire journeys will be done autonomously.

Most of the hype surrounding autonomous vehicles has focussed on cars – but did you know that the first automated public transport line, the Victoria line in London, opened in 1967? Fast forward to 2016 and there are a number of metro systems operating with significantly higher levels of automation.

Metros and trains

According to a recent report published by the International Association of Public Transport, as of July 2016 there were 53 fully automated metro lines in 36 cities across the world. Of the current 786 km of these automated lines, half sit in four countries; France, South Korea, Singapore and the United Arab Emirates. It is predicted that by 2023 there will be 2,200 km of automated lines.

There are varying degrees of metro automation. Some systems are capable of running station to station without any control from the driver, who functions only to detect obstacles and open and close the doors. The highest level of automation, a truly driverless metro vehicle, is already functioning in Copenhagen and Barcelona.

Paris finished the conversion of Metro Ligne 1 to operate using driverless trains in December 2012 after years of planning, construction and negotiation with unions. The conversion was done without major interruption to passengers and its success led to the automation of several other lines in the system.

The conversion of the line to an automated system has allowed additional passengers to be carried at peak times and enabled trains to run every 85 seconds. Sceptics have said this is partly to do with the wide, well lit, proximity of Paris’s metro stations, as well as the abundance of security staff on the platforms –which would make it difficult to replicate in other metropolitan areas.

For an automated metro system to be safe, the platform-track interface is an important factor. One solution for this is to add platform door screens to prevent any individual from having contact with the track, similar to those that exist in Paris today. Another less popular option is a track intruder detection system, but as a whole, limiting access to the track altogether is seen as a more viable solution.

The most popular signalling system used is communications-based metro control, which means the exact positioning of the train is monitored and regulated at all times. This information is used to increase efficiency and capacity by safely reducing the headway between trains on the same line. The train’s location is determined using track and on-board data that is wirelessly transmitted to a central control facility, which manages all trains in the system.  Central control means that service can be adjusted quickly to respond to delays or accommodate crowds and allows for better real time information.

The conversion from a conventional metro system to an automated one is a complex project that may require carefully considered timing and signalling upgrades, fleet modification and retrofitting of track protection systems. Despite this, the benefits of automated metro trains have been seen in the safety, reliability and flexibility they offer passengers, so it is expected that the current exponential growth phase will continue.


Automation in public transport is not just limited to metros; common examples are automated voiceovers at bus stops and real time updated schedules. It is much less common to have a fully automated and driverless bus, but many projects are underway to develop driverless buses to work alongside existing public transport options. There have been challenges to the development so far, with one difficulty coming from city streets being such an incredibly complex place to navigate.

A pioneering EU funded project CityMobil2 has begun testing automated road transport systems with the aim of improving mobility in cities. The system operates using GPS, cameras, radars and obstacle avoidance technology, which enables them to function using existing infrastructure. The trial will involve twelve European cities, with automated services supporting the existing public transport with collective, semi-collective and on demand shuttle services. Current legislation means these cannot mix with normal traffic, but can still operate in dedicated areas or on private sites.

As well as testing the technology itself, the project will also include financial, cultural, technical and behavioural research. This research will determine what the public’s attitude to the introduction of automated road transport is, because this is currently considered to be one of the main barriers. This will also involve looking into how new systems can fit into existing infrastructure, as well as examining the legal aspects of certifying autonomous transport.

The first self-driving electric shuttle, the WEpod, has already taken to the streets in the Netherlands. The project required legislation and regulations to be adjusted, by demonstrating the technology could meet safety requirements. WEpod has already carried six passengers 200 m on normal roads, but has not yet been tested in more challenging road conditions. Similarly, automated last mile buses have been introduced to Finnish roads; these small electric buses can hold up to nine people and will be on trial in three cities.

Mercedes Benz has also developed an autonomous bus, the Future Bus with CityPilot. This technology can respond to traffic lights and pedestrians, as well as approach bus stops automatically. The bus will autonomously brake when it senses it is necessary, using a software platform for autonomous driving in traffic. The first journey was made on a 20km route between Amsterdam’s Schipol airport and Haarlem.

A successful automated public transport system requires integrating all components for a smooth journey for passengers, via trains, trams, buses and last mile or shuttle buses.   Driverless services on existing roads would require not only regulatory change, but also changes in perception by members of the public. With the number of similar projects increasing, this change could happen sooner than we think. The straddling bus however, is a long way off.

Jonathan Wilkins is marketing director at EU Automation
Email: [email protected]

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