Autonomous bus starts taking passengers in the UK first

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At a demonstration last week, the bus driver drove the bus as usual until it reached a predetermined point on Edinburgh’s Forth Road Bridge. A slight «ding» alerted passengers that the driver, Steven Matthew, had engaged the autopilot.

It was then that he cautiously allowed his hands to levitate on the steering wheel, still prepared to take control of the bus from its computerized driver in the event of an incident.

From a few feet away, it still looked like Matthew was driving the bus. Just a closer look made it clear that his arms weren’t moving along with the steering wheel.

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

Even if Matthew has complete confidence in the technology, as the bus crossed the massive bridge at 50 mph, his constant presence behind the wheel was reassuring. This bus may need a Matthew not to protect humans from technology failure, but to back up the technology against failure by human drivers and pedestrians, experts say.

Safety driver Steven Matthew after he switches the bus to autopilot driving over the Forth Road bridge at Queensferry Crossing.Briony Sowden/NBC News

“The biggest barrier with autonomous vehicles is dealing with people, especially in an urban environment, where people make decisions for themselves,” said Ram Murthy, 48, a professor at the University of Edinburgh’s School of Computing who was not directly involved in the bus project.

Human drivers always “stretch the rules a bit so they can get by and collaborate with each other,” he said. If the roads only had autonomous vehicles, the technology would work almost seamlessly and motor vehicle accidents and deaths would plummet, Murthy added.

But even if human foibles contribute to technological errors, there are grounds for public suspicion.

Last year, the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported «nearly 400 crashes in a 10-month period involving vehicles with partially automated driver assistance systems, including 273 with teslas”, according to the Associated Press.

The NHTSA cautioned that such numbers should not be used to compare the safety of different automakers because the data does not «weight them by the number of vehicles from each manufacturer that use the systems, or how many miles those vehicles have driven.»

And earlier this year, Tesla was pressured by regulators to recall more than 363,000 cars equipped with its «full self-driving system» because the system didn’t always comply with road safety rules and could cause accidents. Tesla disputed the regulators’ decision, including whether the company agreed to the recall.

Stagecoach officials and researchers at Fusion Processing, the company that innovated the CAVStar autonomous driving system, acknowledge that even if the bus route is real, the so-called CAVForth bus project remains just a test run. It’s part of a project partly funded by the UK Government’s Center for Connected and Autonomous Vehicles that also involves local transport authorities and a couple of universities.

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An autonomous bus crosses the Forth Road Bridge between Edinburgh and Fife in Scotland. Andy Buchanan/AFP via Getty Images

Organizers hope that technology will eventually reduce human error, which will lead to fewer accidents and deaths on the roads. And by decreasing the need for human drivers, organizers hope to lower costs, making bus systems more accessible to smaller towns and cities that currently can’t afford to offer public transportation.

Each bus is packed with some 20 sensors, cameras and radar, along with a sophisticated satellite-linked global positioning system.

Every thirty minutes, a bus will travel a 14-mile route that, according to Fusion, includes «a range of complex traffic maneuvers, such as roundabouts, stoplights, and ‘criss-cross’ highway lane changes.»

Jim Hutchinson, Fusion’s chief executive, said cautious passengers should remember the advantages of computers over human drivers: The autonomous driver doesn’t have to check blind spots or get distracted. The sensors never blink.

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

If the trial works, organizers hope to roll out similar technology to four other UK cities, perhaps before the end of the year. The various companies and government agencies behind the project hope that broader adoption could spur the kind of regulatory and legal changes that could eventually make a truly «driverless» bus route.

“We still understand that we need to make sure that, you know, the public is with us on this,” Hutchinson said. “So I think there’s still work to be done on that side. But you know, the technology is already there.»

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