(Bloomberg) -- Driverless microbuses started serving the college town of Wageningen, Netherlands, in the first open-ended test in Europe of automated public transport on city streets.
Dutch partners including navigation provider Mapscape, Robot Care Systems and the Technical University of Delft introduced two six-passenger automated vehicles into service on Thursday that could replace standard buses on unprofitable routes. The trial will provide a push to efforts to set up European Union rules for the technology, Minister of Infrastructure Melanie Schultz van Haegensaid at the opening event in Wageningen.
The WEpod models, supplied by French-Indian venture EasyMile, can travel as fast as 40 kilometers (25 miles) per hour, but they’ll be limited to 25 kph for safety reasons, and initially won’t be operated when it rains or snows or at night, Jan Willem van der Wiel, head of the project, said in an interview at the opening event in Wageningen.
“We want to be careful,” Van der Wiel said. “We first want the system to operate well on nice days like today,” before seeing how the vehicles handle heavy precipitation or fog.
While driverless trains for many years have served major international airports and some city routes, such as London’s Docklands line, automated buses are still being tested. The models pose the same regulatory issues as automated cars and trucks as authorities consider how to prevent crashes when other vehicles or pedestrians do something unexpected.
The WEpod navigates through traffic with lasers and other sensors, GPS and pre-programmed 3D maps of the route making constant comparisons to real-life images. Three buttons on the interior enable passengers to brake the bus in case of emergency. During the test phase of the coming few months, a staff member will be assigned to each vehicle and can take control if needed with a tablet.
If something goes wrong with the Wageningen WEpods, the liability will be with the system owner, in this case the Technical University of Delft, Van der Wiel said.
Rides are being offered free for the moment. Developers want to offer customers two modes of service later this year: as a cab that can be reserved or hailed through a mobile application, and as a bus that travels a set route linking the Wageningen University campus with a train station the city shares with the neighboring town of Ede.
Wageningen’s WEpod project follows limited-time street trials of driverless vehicles in La Rochelle, France, and Trikala, Greece, in the past two years. The Dutch program also exchanges data with the CityMobil2 association of technology suppliers and EU municipalities focused on developing automated public transport, Van der Wiel said.
Besides challenges of liability there are questions regarding European regulation and getting technical systems coordinated from the start, Schultz van Haegen told reporters. With the Netherlands currently holding the EU presidency, the minister will try to get counterparts in April to reach an agreement “on what we’ll adjust, research and need to do in the coming period.”
One of the biggest challenges of autonomous public transport is decide on how to classify the technology, Schultz van Haegen said.
“The WEpod is outside all existing categories,” she said. “It’s not a car, it’s not a bus, it’s not a motorized vehicle as the speed is limited — it’s an object on wheels at most.”
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