Self-driving bus service launches in Stockholm

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STOCKHOLM (AP) -- What's claimed to be Scandinavia's first self-driving bus service on public roads is set to roll into action in Stockholm, Sweden.

'Auto Pilot', a self-driving bus project spearheaded by operator Nobina, is set to officially launch on 24 January. It's claimed to be a first of its kind in Scandinavia. For six months, this four-wheeled autonomous minibus will shuttle passengers. Courtesy: AP

Bus operator Nobina hopes by observing commuter reactions they can help develop the autonomous transport vehicles of the future.

On the outskirts of Stockholm, a glimpse into the future of public transportation.

'Auto Pilot', a self-driving bus project spearheaded by operator Nobina, is set to officially launch on 24 January. It's claimed to be a first of its kind in Scandinavia.

For six months, this four-wheeled autonomous minibus will shuttle passengers up and down a 1.5 kilometre, pre-programmed stretch of road in Kista Science City.

"This is to transport public, not one person in one car," explains Peter Hafmar from Nobina Technology.

"To make the environment better we need to travel together, and this will help us travel together in a better way, from door to door, from your bus stop, to your office or from the bus stop to your home. So, that will create a better situation for everyone."

The project is a collaboration between several interested parties, including telecommunications company Ericsson, rail operator SJ, and real estate company Klovern.

The minibuses use 'LiDAR' technology - meaning 'Light Detection and Ranging' - an array of sensors that enable self-driving vehicles to "see" what's around them so they can safely navigate roads.

"What we see is the lidars, and the lidars are the technology that helps us to see the environment and also to see the buildings," explains Hafmar.

"And if a person jumps in front of the vehicle, it sees that person and reacts to it, either to slow down or to stop completely."

Rather than a traditional driver, the minibuses are staffed with a so-called 'host', who keeps watch over the vehicle and closes the door once all passengers have boarded.

There's room for eleven passengers, six seated, and no steering wheel.

"This vehicle doesn't have a traditional steering wheel, no dashboard, so it drives itself," explains Hafmar.

"And you don't have a traditional driver, so the person onboard - the 'host' - can just interact with stopping or starting the vehicle."

During the six-month trial, it's hoped commuters will develop from testing the new technology, to relying on the autonomous vehicles as a convenient transport method.

One things for sure, it's not for anyone in rush. Nobina says the buses have been limited to a maximum speed of 20 kilometres per hour during the trial.

"I was expecting it to be a little bit bumpy, like it should be jumpy start, but it was really smooth and I'm quite impressed," says 25-year-old IT security worker Michael Darnart.

"It's a really good proof of concept that it will work someday in the future at least."

"Computers tend to do less errors than humans," says 19-year-old engineering student Mattias Lind.

"So if we could get more robots out in traffic and less humans out in traffic I think that the amount of fatal accidents and accidents overall in traffic will reduce."

The 'Auto Pilot' project might be bad news for Sweden's bus drivers.

According to analysis by consultancy firm PwC, 56 percent of jobs in the transportation and storage sectors are facing potential high risks of automation.

Nobina claims a 30 percent share of all public transport bus journeys in Sweden, around 200 million trips a year. They have 6,000 employees.

"Usually drivers are actually about 50 percent of the operating cost on public transport," says Yusak Susilo, a professor in transport, analysis and policy at Sweden's KTH Royal Institute of Technology.

"So, it is fairly reasonable for the company to have a look (at) this. But then, at the same time, it's also about how to actually be always at the frontier of your business because now all public transport operators, the big ones, they always see all alternatives, and this is one of the most obvious alternatives they should explore."

Hafmar believes self-driving technology won't replace human drivers for some years to come.

In the meantime, it may increase usage of public transport - if a self-driving bus can complete the last mile of journeys, buses may become a more viable option over personal cars.

"It's quite long in front, in the future, to be able to replace drivers," says Hafmar.

"This is a solution for the last mile, to be able to travel from the bus stop to your office. So, replacing drivers will be far in the future."