A number of autonomous bus trials have rolled into action over the last year or so, but a new one kicking off in the US this week is a little different, and not just because it involves an electric bus capable of clocking 600 miles (966 km) on a single charge. US company Proterra has gotten the Nevada authorities onboard for trials designed specifically to explore autonomous mass-transit systems, placing its long-range electric buses on the streets of Reno.
Electric, autonomous buses are taking to the streets in locations all over the world, as companies and governments eye a future of clean, automated mass transportation. Switzerland's public bus operator is testing them on the streets of Sion, while other examples include the EZ10 in California and the Navia currently shuttling students around a Singaporean university.
For the latest trial, Proterra has teamed up with the University of Reno and its partners from its Living Lab initiative, which coordinates testing of mobility technologies across the city. Those partners include the Nevada Department of Motor Vehicles and the Nevada Governor's Office for Economic Development. The collaboration gives Proterra the green light to start testing its vehicles in the area.
The company has been developing its electric buses for some time with the ultimate goal of building a vehicle capable of serving any transit route in the US. It showed great progress toward this goal in 2015 when it drew 250 miles (402 km) from its Proterra Catalyst XR electric bus on only one charge, and then again last year with a 600-mile (966 km) showing, this time with the so-called Catalyst E2.
Now it wants to put its autonomous capabilities to the test, but with this kind of all-inclusive approach, it emphasizes that the trials will be different to the others taking place around the globe. It will be looking at things from the perspective of public transit systems, working out how they can manage different road conditions, dense environments and emergency response. We asked Dr. Kostas Alexis, Assistant Professor at the University of Nevada's Computer Science & Engineering department, to expand on this.
"The key point here is that public transportation systems, as opposed to normal cars, face specific additional and different challenges including different occlusions and more complex collision-free navigation due to their size, different traffic conditions – especially when people are boarding to the bus – different vehicle dynamics and overall characteristics," he tells New Atlas.
The team will be putting new robotic perception algorithms to the test, while the endeavor will also look at how to best predict traffic flow and ways to improve safety. It will play out over three main phases, the first focusing on data collection and deploying Proterra's electric bus along specific city routes. The second will focus on developing algorithms and communications, and the third will work on licensing and commercialization.
"We started mounting our sensors early in April and we started our trials last week," says Alexis. "I can't really say when we plan to finish. But we plan to have an assessment of the localization, mapping and detection pipeline by end of summer."