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Harry Santamala, photo: Pertti Nisonen

Robobus to roam Helsinki streets

In August 2016, a novel minibus welcomed passengers on board for rides in the busy Helsinki district of Hernesaari. The bus moved at a mere 11 km per hour and joggers passed it; the course was straight and only some hundreds of metres long. Yet, some of the riders seemed nervous. “There’s no driver on this bus!” their reactions spelled out. There was no steering wheel, no brake or accelerator pedal, and seemingly no other controls either. 

Only one guy was perfectly cool, munching a sandwich. 

The bus was, in fact, a robot. This automated electric minibus was being tested by Metropolia University of Applied Sciences as part of the Sohjoa project to develop smarter urban mobility services. The guy with the sandwich was an operator in disguise, on board to take charge if something unexpected happened. 

“The nervousness showed by some passengers soon dissipated,” says project leader Harri Santamala, who directs Metropolia’s smart-mobility innovation hub. His plan is to make such robots business as usual in Helsinki. 

Metropolia leases two EasyMile EZ10 electric minibuses for Sohjoa. Test runs started in Hernesaari continued in Espoo and Tampere last year, to resume in Helsinki in the autumn of 2017. 

Metropolia partners in the Sohjoa project with the Six City Strategy (6Aika) of the six biggest cities of Finland to develop smarter urban solutions, with other universities and with governmental agencies. The project is supported by the European Structural Fund. 

Automated bus to enter regular service

Building on the knowledge gained from Sohjoa, Metropolia is moving forward with an ambitious new automated bus project titled RobobusLine Helsinki. 

On RobobusLine Helsinki, a remote-controlled driverless minibus will be carrying passengers on streets in regular service. “We’ll advance from the short-term experiments of Sohjoa towards more established use,” Santamala says, explaining that RobobusLine will be used to study the long-term operability of autonomous buses in Helsinki. 

Robobus will arrive in Helsinki in November 2017 and will be launched onto streets soon afterwards. According to plan, the route will be in the Ruoholahti–Jätkäsaari area but may change – which often happens with pilot projects, as the team knows from their Sohjoa experience. 

“This year we’ll be experimenting with Robobus, and we plan to launch a more regular service in 2018 once the winter is over,” Santamala says. That is, Robobus won’t be fighting snow and ice in the city. 

Much of the knowledge gained from RobobusLine will be psychological: what the user experience is like, and how passengers will behave after the novelty of a driverless bus wears off. 

In reality, Robobus won’t be completely driverless, as an operator will be riding along to begin with in case the bus runs into a situation that it can’t yet handle. 

Helsinki Region Transport HSL is keenly involved in RobobusLine and will enable the project partners to enter the line in the HSL Journey Planner. In pilot use, the bus can carry eight passengers, and anyone is welcome to board on a first-come, first-served basis. 

The Robobus vehicle is supplied by the electric and autonomous transport systems provider Navya of France. It represents the latest generation of driverless electric minibuses. Robobus is owned by Metropolia, and the acquisition is supported by the Helsinki Innovation Fund. 

RobobusLine is a national project carried out in conjunction with the EU-funded mySMARTLife Helsinki Lighthouse programme. mySMARTLife programmes implemented in several European cities develop workable solutions that can cut urban energy use by 10–20 percent. 

Robots not replacing humans 

Helsinki and Metropolia envision automated buses as a solution to the last-mile service in public transport – taking riders from a public transport hub to their homes. 

The last legs of journeys are poorly served, if at all, and not competitive if served by traditional buses with drivers, but they could be operated competitively with remote-controlled driverless minibuses. “With no drivers, small-sized equipment can be efficient and economic,” Santamala affirms. 

So robots wouldn’t be replacing drivers on the Helsinki bus fleet but add a new mode of public transport to complement the rest. 

The ultimate goal of RobobusLine Helsinki and further automated bus development in the city is to improve public transport services and so to increase public transport use, reducing needs to drive.

 

With fewer private cars on streets and roads, traffic volumes in the fast growing city could be kept manageable. The more electric buses in service, the better Helsinki can achieve its targeted cuts in emissions from transport. 

RobobusLine Helsinki is a three-year project. Santamala outlines its mission: “In three years’ time, we intend to have an automated bus line in Helsinki, planned for a particular route, proved viable through the normal competitive bid process, and integrated with the rest of the Helsinki public transport fleet.” 

A pioneering stride forward in automated bus development

“Helsinki is the first city in the world to put driverless buses on streets,” Santamala declares, “and the Metropolia projects are the first to gather data from operating automated buses in real traffic conditions.” 

Some credit for the pioneering achievements goes to a quirk in Finnish law that doesn’t state that a vehicle must have a driver. But much of the credit goes to Helsinki. 

Santamala elaborates on the reasons why Helsinki is in the leading position: “The City of Helsinki wants to be a pioneer and to promote new, smart mobility. Automated electric minibuses well support that goal. 

“Helsinki is also the right size of a city for a project like RobobusLine. Helsinki is internationally well-known and recognized for forward-looking urban solutions, which brings the project a great deal of international credibility.”

Picture: “Helsinki RobobusLine is part of the overall plan in Helsinki to increase public transport use,” says Harri Santamala, pictured with a Sohjoa driverless bus.

Text: Johanna Lemola
Photo: Pertti Nisonen

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