2016-11-06 01:54:11
A Slow Ride Toward the Future of Public Transportation

01:54, November 06 171 0

HELSINKI, Finland — A small electric bus chugged along at a slow but steady seven miles an hour when a white van, entering the street from the side, cut in front of it. The bus slowed, as if its driver had hit the brakes, and got back up to speed after the van moved safely out of the way.

But this bus has no brake or accelerator pedal. It has no steering wheel, either. In fact, it doesn’t have a driver — it operates using sensors and software, although for now a person is stationed on board ready to hit a red “stop” button in an emergency.

At a time when self-driving cars are beginning to make inroads — most notably with a trial program that the ride service Uber began in Pittsburgh this fall — the bus represents a different approach to technologically advanced transportation.

A driverless car, after all, is still a car, carrying at best a few people. By transporting many passengers on what could be very flexible routes, driverless buses could help reduce the number of cars clogging city streets.

It’s no accident that the bus is being tested in Helsinki, which has been at the forefront of efforts to use technology to rethink public transportation.

Driverless buses like this one are being used in private, controlled settings, for example to shuttle students around a campus or employees on the grounds of an industrial plant. Helsinki is one of the first cities to run so-called autonomous buses on public roads in traffic; another project, in Sion, Switzerland, has been operating for several months, although in September the service was suspended for two weeks after a minor accident.

The Helsinki bus is a project of several universities with cooperation and money from government agencies and the European Union. The two-year, $1.2 million project, called Sohjoa, is just one manifestation of a movement to reduce cars, and the traffic jams and greenhouse gases that come with them.

“A good possible outcome is that less and less people will own personal vehicles in the cities because they really don’t need them anymore,” said Harri Santamala, who coordinates the project and directs a “smart mobility” program at Helsinki Metropolia University of Applied Sciences.

In September a Sohjoa bus, which can accommodate up to 12 passengers sitting and standing, debuted on a straight, quarter-mile route in the city’s Hernesaari district, turning 180 degrees at both ends. The trip connected a popular sauna and restaurant at one end with several restaurants at the other, and attracted a small stream of curious riders.

“We chose this as a first route because we can study a huge amount of different traffic issues depending on the time of day,” Mr. Santamala said.

The buses are not as sophisticated as Uber’s self-driving cars, or those being developed by Google and other companies. Those are essentially “free-range” vehicles, able to travel just about anywhere by comparing what their sensors detect about roads and surroundings with a database that has been compiled by the cars over time. (Before Uber began offering rides in Pittsburgh, for example, employees drove its cars around the city for months, collecting data.)

The buses, made by a French company, are “taught” a route by having operators drive them using steering and acceleration controls on a small box. The route is then fine-tuned with software. In operation, the buses have laser sensors and GPS to keep them on the route, and can deviate only if alternate routes have been “learned” as well.

While the buses are designed to travel at about 15 m.p.h., or 25 kilometers an hour, they are running at half that for the Helsinki trials. Lateral movement is also restricted; if a car is double-parked along the route, for instance, the bus must wait until the car moves or the bus operator steers around it using the control box.

“We have to be very keen about safety,” Mr. Santamala said.

Those restrictions provide an underwhelming experience for now. The most excitement occurs when a vehicle like the white van crosses too closely, or when a motorist approaches from the rear and, impatient with the bus’s tortoiselike pace, swerves around it.

Mr. Santamala said the project aimed to establish a real bus route — probably a seasonal one — in the next two years. And there’s no reason self-driving technology could not be applied to bigger buses eventually.

For now, the project is focusing on so-called last mile service — taking riders from a stop on a more conventional bus line to a point closer to their homes, shops, offices or schools. An autonomous bus, presumably going faster, could be useful, especially because of a quirk in Finland’s motor vehicle laws.

“It doesn’t state anywhere that we need to have a driver holding the steering wheel or even inside the vehicle,” Mr. Santamala said. “A legal driver can be observing the operation through a computer.”

That means a number of buses could run autonomously, with one operator in a central office intervening remotely as needed. Reducing the number of operators could make it financially feasible to run routes that serve only a few customers, or to vary routes throughout the day based on ridership.

Helsinki has already seen several efforts to use technology to change public transportation. One was an on-demand minibus service, Kutsuplus, that was operated by the regional transport agency for four years. Using a smartphone, customers could choose pick-up and drop-off locations. The service’s software then combined requests from several customers and calculated an optimal route for one of its 15 minibuses.

“It was a good experiment, ” said Sami Sahala, who advises the city on “intelligent transportation” issues. “But it was a little bit ahead of its time.” Kutsuplus was heavily subsidized by the city, and although the service was popular and gaining riders, it was doomed by budget cuts at the end of last year.

A spinoff company, Split, ran an on-demand service in Washington that was discontinued last month, and Uber and its ride-service rival, Lyft, have developed similar ride-share services that use the companies’ drivers and their private cars.

Other efforts to remake transportation continue in Helsinki. The most ambitious is a service introduced this fall by a Finnish company, MaaS Global, that offers all-inclusive transit services for a monthly fee. The concept, called “mobility as a service,” takes its inspiration from the changes that have occurred in the telecommunications industry over the past several decades, Mr. Sahala said.

“You used to pay for all the calls you made,” he said. “But with the advent of mobile phones, the business model started to change. Now you pay a fixed price, and everything is included.”

Through an app called Whim, MaaS Global lets customers order transportation from point A to point B and then guarantees it will provide it, using a combination of trams, buses, taxis, rental cars and car-sharing services.

“You’re covered,” said Sampo Hietanen, the chief executive of MaaS Global. “You can just concentrate on going.” The monthly fees vary depending on how much transportation is needed.

Mr. Hietanen said that to be successful, the service should provide the same feeling of independence that owning a car does.

Cars are expensive, and studies have shown that most urban car owners rarely use them, so there’s a potential market in people who give up their cars and spend some of the savings on a service like Whim.

Self-driving cars and buses may eventually help to make services like MaaS Global’s widely affordable, Mr. Hietanen said.

For now, the bus trials continue. Last month, the project moved to a more complex route in Espoo, on Helsinki’s outskirts, and is now operating in Tampere, 111 miles (179 kilometers) to the north.

Mr. Santamala and his colleagues analyze each trip to learn how a self-driving bus differs from one operated by a human, and how motorists and pedestrians interact with it. One difference was apparent to everyone aboard the bus after the white van cut in front of it: There was no driver to yell at the driver of the van, which had pulled into a nearby parking space.

So Helena Bensky, a Helsinki resident who was giving the bus a try, offered to fill in.

“Should I go give that guy a telling off?” she asked.