For Christmas, the answer to every commuter’s prayers

Perth's driverless Intellibus has recently completed a successful trial.
Perth's driverless Intellibus has recently completed a successful trial.
It's the last day of work before the summer holidays. We have the answer to every commuter's Christmas wish

Things that the everyday – or twice a day – commuter would be happy to see the back of: waiting for an eternity at the bus stop, only for three buses to arrive at once; sitting idle in traffic jams while more agile cars and scooters cut in front; being late for work most days.

The answer may just be Western Australia’s Intellibus. For a start, there isn’t a bus driver to blame.

At the start of December, the RAC motoring organisation completed a three-month trial of the self-driving vehicle in south Perth.

Passengers put their lives in the hands of a fully autonomous bus that drives itself using Lidar (light detection and ranging) – ultraviolet light to detect and avoid objects, measure distance and build a map of the environment, aided by external cameras to detect traffic lights.

For the trial, the Intellibus travelled at an average speed of 25kph – perhaps a sensible precaution given that self-driving vehicles have been involved in a number of high-profile accidents in Google and Uber trials in recent months.

Dr Peter Harrop, chairman of research company IDTechEx, which created the Intellibus, says buses promise to be the means by which self-driving vehicles filter into everyday life.

“The driverless autonomous bus will be popular, with no user pushback because we readily [and] happily climb into driverless trains at airports already – even driverless pods at Heathrow Airport in London, where that technology is now being upgraded to create free-running autonomous buses,” he says.

He believes buses will not only run off green energy but power themselves through energy-harvesting shock absorbers and solar roofs.

Nanowinn Technologies in China has already developed an energy-independent eight-seater and Toyota is working on 3D printed seats featuring sensors, heaters and coolers and covered in smart fabric.

His company calculates that 2.3 million electric buses will be made in 2027, about six times the current number.

In Australia the leaders in cutting-edge bus technology have long been stationed in Melbourne.

Public Transport Victoria has trialled innovations with its SmartBus lines for over a decade.

Running along three orbital city and four Doncaster Area Rapid Transit lines, innovations to these buses began with low-tech improvements such as dedicated lanes and stations designed for the physically and visually impaired.

They progressed to smart technology solutions such as the ability to request priority at traffic lights and to stream real-time information back to the depot and forward to passengers waiting at the next stop.

TransDev, the private company that has taken the wheel from PTV for these routes, is planning to accelerate development even faster.

Its managing director, Harry Wijers, has worked with electric buses, autonomous vehicles and on-demand transport in the Netherlands, and is keen to help to introduce such concepts to Australia.

He wants to upgrade the Doncaster Area Rapid Transit lines to something called Bus Rapid Transit.

“BRT combines the recognised features of rail with the flexibility and cost advantages of road transport,” he says.

These lines will have dedicated right-of-way allowing for more predictable bus arrival times and faster travel, stations that feature dedicated parking and shops, and clean fuel technology.

Wijers expects plenty of community resistance to the infrastructure needed for the line. He puts that down to a public preference for a proposed Doncaster rail link.

“Another obstacle is the perception that BRT would compete with private vehicles for the available road space,” he says.

“While it’s easy to jump to this conclusion, people should understand that a fully articulated bus has the capacity to take at least 100 cars off the road.”

He also highlights Transdev’s on-demand bus services in the Netherlands, targeted at elderly and disabled people.

“An on-demand transport system that supplements the public transport network creates a door-to-door journey for everyone, but especially for vulnerable customers,” he says.

“On-demand transport systems also perfectly balance demand with available resources. It has the potential to provide a perfect service alternative in areas where the demand isn’t high enough to justify the allocation of standard-route bus services.”

The future of the bus promises to be greener, faster and more efficient, but the biggest impact will not be felt by passengers but drivers.

According to the 2015 PwC report A Smart Move, almost 95,000 bus, car and rail drivers in Australia have an 80% likelihood of seeing their jobs disappear in the next 20 years, thanks to driverless vehicle technology.


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