The future of transportation: Driverless cars and driverless buses

<span property="schema:name">The future of transportation: Driverless cars and driverless buses</span>

The future of transportation: Driverless cars and driverless buses

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    Aline-Mwezi Niyonsenga
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Innovations in transportation will greatly affect the infrastructure of future cities. With the coming of driverless cars (see Future of Transportation), traffic lights will eventually become obsolete. The increasing popularity of private ridesharing services will reduce traffic to the point that roads will adopt a more pedestrian-friendly design.

But what about public transportation systems? How do they fit into this forecast? Will there be driverless buses as well as driverless cars? Which one will overtake the other?

And let’s not ignore recent events. China’s “straddling bus” made a big stir on social media this year. Does it have a place in the future of infrastructure?

Is Batie for real?

At the 19th International High-Tech Expo in Beijing, May 2016, a tiny “straddling bus” model caught the world’s attention. It promised to greatly reduce traffic on Chinese roads by riding 2 metres above 2 traffic lanes’ worth of cars while carrying around 1.4 thousand people. Running on electricity, it would also cut fuel consumption by 800 tonnes. Not only that, but its chief engineer, Song Youzhou, claimed that the cost of making it would be less than investing in a new subway line.

The Transit Elevated Bus (TEB), dubbed Batie, caused even more of a stir when it had an actual test run in early August. A 121-metre long version carrying up to 300 people travelled across a 30-metre long controlled track in the northeast city of Qinghuangdao.

“I saw images of this not long ago and now it’s actually happening?” asked a Weibo user.

The hype died quickly.

Only a few days later, journalists dug up startling facts. The project had no government backing, only a skeleton agreement with the local government where the test was run. In response, the company clarified that they didn’t conduct a “road test” but what was still “internal testing”. Though Song claimed that they already had contracts for 500,000 Baties, Chinese journalists found no evidence of ongoing construction for their factory in Henan province. Not only that, but TEB Technologies is associated with Huaying Kailai, who was once blacklisted for conducting illegal finance activities. State-controlled Global Times even accused him of running a peer-to-peer financing scheme that promised high returns. Under fire, Songcalled his bus, “a major national innovation,” but admitted that it did not qualify as a project yet.

Batie’s design is also questionable. According to Beijing News, the model hasn’t changed in the 6 years since it was first introduced and the life-sized version used in the test run was unfinished.

With a clearance of only 2 metres, SUVs, let alone trucks, can’t pass through. Height-wise, would it fit under the footbridges of Beijing? The question of how it will efficiently recharge its batteries is also an issue, since it’s bound to be expensive. Solar panels won’t help much and relay charging between stations would be a solution but it’s a risky one. What if it ran out of battery in the middle of the road?

Can Batie make 90 degree turns? The test run was on a straight track. Also, Batie is not a bus; it runs on tracks. As a train, it has little advantages over its contemporaries.

Despite all the major setbacks, Song was optimistic. “Any invention will face challenges at the beginning, including the first underground train and the first airplane, but now they’ve all developed very well.” He planned to apply for 20 more patents at the time.

Because of Song’s compelling enthusiasm, it’s hard to tell if Batie is a flop, or if the idea will inspire other innovators in the coming future. Then again, there are more practical innovations to look forward to.

The kind of driverless car to expect

Any driver would be hesitant to let an AI do all the driving, especially with fears of hacking and computer related malfunctions, but by 2040, driverless cars will be the norm, just not in the way you would expect.

Uber has latched onto the idea of driverless cars to eliminate the cost of their drivers’ salary (which accounts for 75% of what you pay when you call an Uber) when offering transportation services. Make an automated car electric and you can use its services for pennies a kilometre.

As outlined in the Future of Transportation, Uber’s upcoming ridesharing bus service will use a series of known stops on unconventional routes for individuals heading to specific locations. It will also text you an additional 30-50% discount if you decide to pick someone up, like an extension of uberPOOL. It won’t be long before Google jumps on the bandwagon, along with Apple, Tesla and even GM and Toyota, among other ridesharing competitors. These competitors will more likely cooperate than try to buy each other out. Since the whole point of these services is to make them affordable, and to keep them affordable, one needs competition.

In the Future of Transportation and the Future of Cities, we predicted that driverless cars will become commercially viable in 2020, commonplace by 2030, and that ridesharing will become mainstream between 2028-2034.

If competing corporations offer ridesharing services, where will that leave public transport?

For fear of becoming obsolete, the few world class transport commissions may launch their own driverless bus services, but the cost of purchasing driverless buses will put a strain on taxpayers, ultimately making it tough to compete. A more likely scenario is that transport commissions will sell off their buses to these rising corporations and play a regulatory role in the ridesharing business. The surplus from the sale will even fund the improvement and expansion of subway systems which aren’t threatened at all by ridesharing services.

Still, another alternative for public transportation exists.

Driverless buses or driverless cars?

Driverless buses are already at the trial phase (see previous article). In 2014, the British Transport Minister Claire Perry noted that driverless buses would improve rural transportation, providing “better and more frequent” services. Without the cost of a driver, the bus can visit more stops without heavy cost.

The EU is even funding a group for automated transportation systems across Europe called CityMobil2. Brands such as 2GetThere are already operating under it with more to come. In 5-10 years’ time, these buses will serve low-demand routes and time bands. This will free up funds for more manned buses that are redirected to high-demand routes. The driverless buses’ individual or collective services will complement main public transport networks in Europe.

We’re already seeing unconventional services complementing traditional public transportation services. Florida’s “FlexBus” shuttle carries passengers from commuter trains to their final destinations. Similar forms of cooperation will continue so that public transportation services and private ridesharing services coexist, at least for a little while.

In the end, individually-owned driverless cars won’t be more convenient than driverless buses. Driverless buses or ridesharing cars are ultimately cheaper and can carry more people. 20 years from now, nearly every passenger car will become a pseudo-bus.