Following the lead of cities like Singapore and San Sebastian, Helsinki has welcomed the driverless EZ10 bus onto its roads, but this project will be a little different to the closed-loop trials to go before it. In the city's Hernesaari district, the bus will be made to contend with pedestrians, motorists and commuters as it is let off the leash along routes with real traffic for the first time.
A number of self-driving buses have been thrust into action in the past few years. Singapore has trialled other autonomous shuttles along routes out of a local university, US vehicle-maker Local Motors has also demonstrated an autonomous shuttle that can talk to its passengers, and even big wigs like Mercedes-Benz have flagged their interest in the future of driverless mass transit. But these have taken place along routes closed off to regular traffic.
The fully electric EZ10 bus is manufactured by French company EasyMile and operates entirely autonomously (it doesn't even have a steering wheel). The vehicle doesn't require special infrastructure to run, as it uses a mix of sensors to detect obstacles and navigate along virtual routes and negotiate hazards.
Last year the EZ10 was put through a two-week trial on a 1.5-km (0.9-mi) looped route at a Singapore park. More recently, the bus was rolled out in the Finnish city of Vantaa. Although this too was along routes closed to regular traffic, it appears to have won over Finland's transport authority, who has given the green light to see how the bus fares outside of a controlled environment.
The trial kicked off on August 16 and will continue through to mid-September, reports Finland's national broadcaster Yle. This will pit the bus against the challenges of unpredictable foot traffic and motorists. Although the EZ10 has a top speed of 40 km/h (25 mph), it will only run at an average speed of about 10 km/h (6.2 mph) so the bus may well pose a challenge to impatient human drivers as well.
The Hernesaari trial is among the first to test out autonomous buses on public roads. A couple of months back, Switzerland also kicked off a two-year trial, with driverless buses currently roaming the streets of Sion.
"This is actually a really big deal right now. There's no more than a handful of these kinds of street traffic trials taking place, if that," test project lead and Metropolia University of Applied Sciences project manager Harri Santamala told Yle.
Santamala says that rather than replacing existing mass transit systems, the EZ10s could be used to supplement them as a feeder service, by knowing when a connecting service is arriving and shuttling passengers to the pickup point in time.
Finland is well placed to make some real progress when it comes to autonomous vehicles, as its Ministry of Transportation and Communication currently allows them to be tested in urban environments. After Hernesaari, the EZ10 buses will move to the city of Espoo for more testing, and then onto Tampere in the country's south.
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