First anniversary of the SmartShuttles
Press release of 22 June 2017
One year after the inauguration of the world’s first SmartShuttles on public roads, PostBus and its Mobility Lab partners (City of Sion, Canton of Valais, EPFL, HES-SO Valais-Wallis and Swiss Post) can look back on a positive launch. The population of Sion and the numerous tourists who tested the self-driving buses have reacted positively to this new transport solution. The yellow shuttles also arouse considerable interest among the research community, in companies and among the local authorities.
More than 21,500 people transported in Sion
Sion, Valais and Switzerland are global pioneers in the use of self-driving buses. PostBus is one of the first operators worldwide to carry passengers on public roads. Since 23 June 2016, the two SmartShuttles have carried more than 21,500 people across the Sion city centre, including several thousand who have come especially from other parts of Switzerland and from abroad. A genuine tourist attraction, they have also attracted the attention of numerous companies, both at home and abroad, as well as numerous public institutions – in particular municipalities and associations – interested in testing this technology in situ.
The yellow shuttles were in operation for 312 days throughout the year and covered more than 4,500 kilometres. On average, they drove at 6 km/h, covering a distance of 1.5 km in approximately a quarter of an hour. These little eleven-seater buses have neither steering wheel nor driver. An attendant travels on the bus and is responsible for ensuring safety, monitoring the operation and intervening if necessary. This pioneering project will continue to run until at least 31 October 2017.
The aim of the pilot project is to test this new technology in the field and to acquire experience with a view to other future uses. At the same time, the project managers regularly ask the passengers about their level of acceptance of this new means of transport. Many are a little sceptical before starting their journey but their reaction is, for the most part, very positive once they have arrived at their destination. The assessment is not linked to age: many of the passengers aged 55 and over are enthusiastic and enquire about when and where the SmartShuttles will be used. We also note that the under 20s spontaneously board the vehicle and travel quite naturally as if it were a traditional Postbus.
Even if this technology is already highly developed, the use of self-driving buses is still in its infancy. Their installation and use is a laborious process which must be closely monitored. The partners concerned benefit from these lessons on a daily basis. The attendants keep a precise journal and record any necessary interventions they make. From time to time, they need to avoid obstacles such as badly parked vehicles in manual mode. These are the main causes of interventions, accounting for 80% of the cases. In heavy snow, for example, they cannot at present be operated. An incident occurred in September 2016 when one of the two SmartShuttles collided with the open tailgate of a parked delivery vehicle at a height of about 2.20 m. The two vehicles involved suffered only minor damage. The operational test of the two SmartShuttles was immediately suspended for a period of two weeks. When they were put back on the road again, PostBus and Navya, the vehicle manufacturer, had made a series of small technical and organizational adjustments. For example, the safety margin on corners had been increased, thereby enabling the vehicles to react in a more sensitive manner if an obstacle were encountered and to stop quickly. The lessons learned from this incident could be utilized in a constructive way and are part and parcel of an innovative project of this kind.
Navya, the vehicle manufacturer, and the monitoring entity, the fleet management software developer BestMile, collect and manage valuable information concerning the availability of the shuttles, their location and the condition of the sensors. As such, the 3D map which serves as a real navigational map for the shuttle, has been adjusted several times. Based on the map, the SmartShuttles record a route that they can follow as if they were on virtual rails. In parallel, from a scientific point of view, researchers at the EPFL are testing and improving the traffic and fleet management algorithms of the automated shuttle fleet.
International interest in self-driving buses
The lessons learned from this test are constantly assessed and made available to the Federal Road Office. PostBus and the Swiss authorities are thus undertaking pioneering work in the development and use of self-driving buses. The transport company is establishing the foundations of valuable technological know-how in Switzerland which is also generating keen interest abroad. It has therefore developed valuable contacts with international companies. The SmartShuttle has also been presented at exhibitions, for example in one of the halls at the CeBIT fair in Hanover, in Paris, at a public transport fair or on the roads of the Principality of Monaco during the EVER trade fair. The SmartShuttle has seen some 20,000 additional passengers on these occasions. The self-driving buses thus also contribute to making Sion, Valais and Switzerland development and experimentation hubs for innovative technologies. Through this pilot operation, the partners involved also help create new jobs in Switzerland in the high-tech sphere.
Prospects for the future
The Mobility Lab partners want to provide passengers using these self-driving shuttles with added value and thus extend the network within the city of Sion. At present, the project leaders are working with their partners and the authorities concerned to study the option of extending and altering the route with a view to incorporating SmartShuttles into the overall mobility chain. The SmartShuttles will thus meet one of the stated objectives of PostBus: that of completing and enhancing the transport network in the last mile. The transport company, the City of Sion and the Canton of Valais are also exploring the option of prolonging the test beyond the completion date initially scheduled for the end of October 2017. The aim is to make the system more flexible and to use other options to increase the benefits for passengers, for example with a bus "on demand" function.