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Self-driving bus begins transporting passengers in the UK


During a protest last week, the bus operator drove the bus as usual until it reached a pre-determined point on Edinburgh’s Forth Road Bridge. A faint “ding” sound alerted passengers that the driver, Steven Matthew, had turned on the autopilot.

It was then that he delicately let his hands levitate above the steering wheel – always ready to take control of the bus from its computerized driver in the event of an incident.

A few feet away, Matthew still looked like he was driving the bus. Only closer examination showed that his arms did not move with the steering wheel.

“I think the technology is brilliant,” Matthew, a 47-year-old operations supervisor, told NBC News. “He stays in the lane, he brakes when he detects other traffic. The only thing you may need to worry about is other motorists not knowing what they are going to do.

Even though Matthew has complete faith in the technology, as the bus sped across the huge bridge at 80 km/h, his constant presence behind the wheel was reassuring. This bus may need a Matthew not to protect humans from flaws in the technology, but to support the technology against flaws in human drivers and pedestrians, experts say.

Safety driver Steven Matthew after putting the bus on autopilot on the Forth Road Bridge at Queensferry Crossing.
Safety driver Steven Matthew after putting the bus on autopilot on the Forth Road Bridge at Queensferry Crossing.Briony Sowden/NBC News

“The biggest hurdle with self-driving vehicles is dealing with people, especially in an urban environment, where people make decisions for themselves,” said Ram Murthy, 48, a professor at the School of computing from the University of Edinburgh who was not directly involved in the bus project.

Human drivers are “always stretching the rules a bit so they can get by and collaborate with each other,” he said. If the roads only had self-driving vehicles, the technology would work almost perfectly and motor vehicle crashes and fatalities would plummet, Murthy added.

But even if human weaknesses contribute to technological errors, there is reason to be wary of the public.

Last year, the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported “nearly 400 crashes over a 10-month period involving vehicles equipped with partially automated driver assistance systems, including 273 with Teslas,” according to the Associated Press.

NHTSA warned that these figures should not be used to compare the safety of different automakers, as the data does not “weight them by how many vehicles from each manufacturer use the systems, or how many miles traveled by these vehicles.

And earlier this year, regulators pushed Tesla to recall more than 363,000 cars equipped with its “complete self-driving system” because the system did not always meet traffic safety rules and could cause accidents. Tesla challenged the regulators’ decision, even though the company accepted the recall.

Stagecoach officials and researchers at Fusion Processing, the company that pioneered the CAVStar self-driving system, agree that while the bus line is real, the so-called CAVForth bus project is still just a trial run. . It is part of a project partly funded by the UK government’s Center for Connected and Autonomous Vehicles, which also involves local transport authorities and two universities.

A self-driving bus crosses the Forth Road Bridge between Edinburgh and Fife, Scotland. Andy Buchanan/AFP via Getty Images

Organizers hope the technology will ultimately reduce human error, leading to fewer road accidents and fatalities. And by decreasing the need for human drivers, organizers hope to cut costs, making bus systems more accessible to smaller towns that currently cannot afford to offer public transport.

Each bus is equipped with around twenty sensors, cameras and radars, as well as a sophisticated global positioning system linked by satellite.

Every thirty minutes, a bus will travel a 14-mile route which Fusion says includes “a range of complex traffic maneuvers such as roundabouts, traffic lights and ‘zigzagging’ freeway lane changes. .

Jim Hutchinson, CEO of Fusion, said wary passengers should remember the advantages of computers over human drivers: the self-driving driver doesn’t have to check blind spots, or be distracted. The sensors never blink.

Fusion and Stagecoach officials say that while the service is still experimental, the buses only hit the road after extensive testing: the buses have undergone ten years of research and development and more than 1.1 million kilometres. of testing.

If the trial works, organizers hope to roll out similar technology to four other UK cities, possibly before the end of the year. The various companies and government agencies behind the project hope that wider adoption could spur the kind of regulatory and legal changes that could eventually realize a truly “driverless” bus line.

“We always understand that we have to make sure that, you know, the public is with us on this,” Hutchinson said. “So I think there is still work to be done on that side. But you know, the technology is ready now.

Joanna Swanson

Joanna Swanson is Europe correspondent at the Thomson Reuters Foundation based in Brussels covering politics, culture, business, climate change, society, economies and inclusive tech. With specific focus in breaking news, she has covered some of the world's most significant stories.