AUTONOMOUS TECH: Driverless Buses Take to the Roads in Helsinki

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Helsinki Buses

One of the big challenges of developing autonomous vehicles is testing them in the real world.

Laws for how they can be operated vary from state to state and from country to country. In Finland, there’s no law at all requiring a driver behind the wheel so you can now take a ride in a completely driverless bus in the city of Helsinki.

This isn’t the first time that a Finnish city has utilized driverless buses. Last year, the neighboring city of Vantaa used buses to shuttle people during its housing fair, but the roads those buses traveled were closed to other traffic. The buses in Helsinki will be driving public roads right along with the rest of the city’s traffic.

The project is a test being conducted by the Metropolia Univeristy of Applied Sciences and could be expanded if it goes well. It’s a challenging environment that will make this not only a test of how well the buses operate, but of how well people deal with having these buses on the road.

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Typically, traffic travels at a consistent rate with everyone slowing down or speeding up to maintain the pace. There’s no real choice when traffic slows, but when traffic speeds up, human drivers tend to go faster than the posted limits. That won’t happen with driverless buses.

They’re limited to roughly 10 kph, which may prove frustrating to anyone stuck in traffic behind one. Technically this should be safer because it will keep people from speeding, but road rage isn’t a good thing either. Impatient drivers can be dangerous. It’s one of the things the study will be evaluating.

The goal isn’t to replace all of Helsinki’s buses with driverless vehicles, but to supplement the existing system. These shuttles will take people from low-volume areas to high-volume areas where they can take larger traditional shuttles to their final destinations.

In addition to seeing how other drivers on the road will deal with the driverless shuttles in their midst, there’s also the question of how passengers will feel about the idea. Helsinki tried another approach to improving its transportation that didn’t work out.

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Kutsuplus was a transportation service that used a ride-hailing app, mobile payments, and public transportation to move people around the city. It survived for only 18 months before the city axed the system due to high costs and low usage.

Even if these new driverless shuttles work out from a technology standpoint, the public has to buy into the idea. Without public support, the project can’t be a success.

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