Australia’s driverless future just got one bus length closer.
An autonomous electric bus, known as the RAC Intellibus, has begun on-road trials in Perth. Driving along the South Perth Esplanade, it will carry passengers while dodging anything from parked cars to cyclists.
To undertake the three-month public trial, the Royal Automobile Club of Western Australia (RAC) received a special permit from the state government. Patrick Walker, RAC executive general manager, told Mashable he expects that if the trial goes well, the route will be extended with the appropriate permits.
The current route is about 2.5 kilometres (1.6 miles) long, which amounts to a 20-minute circuit. Walker said the third phase of the trial would potentially travel from Sir James Mitchell Park and past Perth Zoo, which is about 20 minutes one way.
The esplanade trip was chosen because the RAC team wanted a route that wasn’t too complicated and that stayed off high-speed roads. The bus has a maximum speed of 45 km (28 m) per hour, but will typically travel at 20 km (12 m) per hour.
“It’s a pretty busy place with parked cars, pedestrians, cyclists and other vehicles, as well as dogs,” Walker said. “We needed a site that had a degree of complexity, but that was realistic for the site of a first trial.”
Potential passengers can register to try the driverless bus, he said, which will operate Monday to Thursday, as well as Saturdays.
In Walker’s view, the bus is a level-five automation — the highest level of automation under the SAE classification system — given it has no steering wheel, no operator and no pedals.
Its LIDAR system uses ultraviolet light to sense and avoid obstacles, supported by stereovision cameras that can read traffic signals. Like many other vehicles already on the road, it also has GPS and autonomous emergency braking that should leap into action if a potential collision is detected.
The bus has 11 seats. There is room for four to stand, but no one will be standing during the trial for safety reasons. Also, as a precaution, seat belts have been installed. There will be a chaperone on board who can press the emergency stop button if necessary, but their main role will be to answer questions.
“We’ll be conservative, it won’t be zipping around the streets,” Walker said.
As part of an effort to reduce the number of cars on the road, Walker sees the technology fitting what’s known as the “first and last mile” of people’s journeys — small but inconvenient distances for which people often jump in their cars.
“If you had a regular shuttle bus, you could hop on where you live and it could take you to a train, bus or ferry,” he suggested.
Walker hopes the trial will win over Aussies. “Over the next three months, we’re keen to give members of the public the chance to not only see this new technology, but also try it,” he said. “We’ve been pleasantly surprised, the majority of people are keen to have a go.”
In only four years, Walker predicted, autonomous vehicles will be readily available: “We just want to be sure we can safely transition driverless vehicles into our public road network.”