NASHVILLE—Autonomous shuttles traveling short, defined routes are being tested around the world, but it will be decades before truly autonomous multi-passenger vehicles head out on open roads, said experts addressing an education session at Motorcoach EXPO 2020.
“If it only goes from Point A to Point B, maybe on a fixed lane or highway, or it is a fixed shuttle that goes at a very slow speed in a confined environment, that is relatively easy. If you start talking about highway speed on anything other than a main road, it becomes infinitely complex,” said Brent Maitland, vice president of marketing and product planning at MCI.
Following the five levels of autonomy defined by the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE), buses are now transitioning from Level 1 (driver assistance) to Level 2 (partial automation).
For reaching Level 5 (full automation), “It could be five to 25 years,” said Brian Nelson, staff engineer of ABC Companies, which distributes Van Hool motorcoaches. “There are so many unknowns involved. There is no doubt in my mind that we will one day get to Level 5, but I think there will always be a need for someone to attend to your equipment.”
“There are parallels with the airlines,” Maitland said. “There is a high level of automation on airliners, but they still require a pilot.”
The sensors needed to perfect automated driving—visual, radar and lidar—require further development, Maitland said.
“Right now there are five different people making different sensors with different systems, and they don’t necessarily work together. There is a battle for who is going to have the best system. Having that work seamlessly is going to be a critical element,” he said.
“Also needed are electric steering, throttle and braking systems,” Maitland said. “Then there is more ability to take control and manipulate them in an automated fashion.”
This isn’t cargo
Buses and motorcoaches likely will be the last vehicles to become fully automated, not only because of the obvious risks facing passengers but also due to the heightened perception of risks.
“Trucks have a good chance of going fully automated before passenger vehicles,” Nelson said. “There are a lot of things to overcome ethically, morally and in liability. If the bus controls itself and there is an accident, who is at fault?
“The technology has to be perfected because it has to be better than the best human driver. Is society ready for a bus that drives itself? Then there is legislation and regulation, and to me that is completely unpredictable,” he said.
Autonomous buses will face more scrutiny than those driven by humans, Nelson said.
“People are going to be more critical of new technology. Look at the Tesla (automobile) fires. There are three Tesla fires and everybody loses their minds, but meanwhile how many (other) cars caught on fire? Tens of thousands and nobody batted an eye. That is the world we live in, and perception is reality.”
The other side of the bridge?
“There are some thought leaders in this area who think Level 5 is never going to happen,” Maitland said. “But we will see certain applications, such as shipping.”
As with passenger airplanes, he said, “You won’t see a true Level 5 driverless vehicle because someone is going to monitor it.”
Buses and motorcoaches will benefit from the ridesharing and trucking industries that will be the first to deploy the higher automation levels, Nelson said. “We will be able to see what works and doesn’t and provide the best possible product for our customers. This system has to be proven in and out, over countless amounts of times, before we put human souls in it.”
Port Authority NY NJ seeks autonomous vehicle proposals
As motorcoach industry leaders were attending Motorcoach EXPO, the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey was awaiting responses to a “Request for Innovation” to assist it “in exploring the potential for autonomous vehicle systems at Port Authority facilities to support the mission of moving people and goods throughout the region.”
The proposal, issued Jan. 2, asks for autonomous vehicle businesses to submit information on the workings of their systems to identify potential applications at Port Authority facilities. The request states that three to five of the respondents will be selected to further collaborate with the authority staff and will receive a stipend.
The Port Authority began operating an autonomous shuttle system last August in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. “Shuttling passengers in six vehicles along a 1.1-mile route in mixed traffic, vehicles safely provide a free mode of transportation from the entrance of the Navy Yard to the ferry terminal,” the document stated.