Discover How AI Technology Is Changing Public Transportation

Discover How AI Technology Is Changing Public Transportation

How would you feel if you were sitting on a bus and the driver suddenly stood up but the bus kept going? Making turns and braking at red lights just like you would expect it to if there was a driver behind the wheel? Most people’s first reaction would probably be to panic but after there was no collision, they would sit back in awe. Artificial intelligence or AI technology is responsible for automating many mundane tasks, such as having Siri send a text message, asking Alexa to add more paper towels to your Amazon shopping cart, or automatically redacting faces and license plates from police body cam footage. So why shouldn’t we use it to automate driving?

Partnered with radar, GPS, and cameras, artificial intelligence can interpret the world around a car or a bus and decide how to respond from a knowledge base of traffic laws and tested scenarios. But what about driving in the rain or snow? What if a driver cuts in front of the automatic vehicle without a turn signal and stomps on the brakes? What if the system of complex technology simply fails? These are questions that have been asked time and time again when it comes to autonomous driving and each developer of such a vehicle is tackling these challenges in different ways. From the UK and the US to Japan and Finland, there is a wide range of approaches to automating public transportation.

The United Kingdom’s First Self-Driving Bus

With a driver behind the wheel but with their hands off of it, the first autonomous buses are now operating on the streets of Scotland. These buses are a product of the company Stagecoach Scotland, one of the biggest bus-operating companies in Great Britain. The technology behind the autonomous bus is a complicated network of sensors, cameras, radar systems, and a GPS that allows the AI to make decisions on how to maneuver through traffic. To ensure road safety the Stagecoach buses have undergone ten years of research and development, totaling over one million miles in road testing.

At the moment the buses are not driverless. Instead, there are two staff members on board, one helping customers with tasks like buying tickets and answering questions, while the other sits in the driver’s seat with their hands hovering over the wheel. The person sitting behind the wheel is a safety net to intervene in case of machine error or the faults of other drivers. Unlike the automated buses, which obey all traffic laws, drivers like you and I may bend the rules every now and again. Professor Ram Murthy of the School of Informatics at the University of Edinburgh went as far as to say, “If roads had only autonomous vehicles, the tech would operate almost perfectly, and motor vehicle accidents and deaths would plummet.”

There are currently five Stagecoach buses involved in the one-year trial to test the performance of autonomous buses in Scotland and if the results are acceptable, we may see dozens more of vehicles like these ferrying passengers across the UK and around the world.

Japan and Finland’s All-Weather Autonomous Shuttle

Japan and Finland share joint custody of a small shuttle bus that is designed to promote social interaction between passengers and navigate the harshest road conditions imaginable; all without a driver. Unlike the Stagecoach buses in Scotland that operate with two humans on board to intervene in case of emergency, the GACHA bus is fully autonomous and driverless.

GACHA owes its minimalistic design to the Japanese retailer, Muji, and its autonomous capabilities to the Finnish company Sensible 4. It is fully electronic, can seat ten passengers with space for an additional six standing riders, and is capable of driving even in the treacherous conditions of Lapland, a subarctic region in northern Finland. GACHA comes fully equipped with a whole slew of top-notch technology including; 360-degree camera visibility, lidar and radar, GPS, and 4G LTE/5G connectivity. Additionally, the cabin space is built with a U-shape seating arrangement, encouraging conversation between passengers and allowing for spacious accommodations throughout the ride.

While GACHA successfully navigated Finland’s capital city, Helsinki after its unveiling in 2019, in 2022 it was Japan’s turn to retain custody. In Japan, GACHA’s artificial intelligence technology was put to the test on a bus route in the city of Chiba, which is an hour’s drive east of the capital city of Tokyo, for two weeks.

After its testing in both GACHA’s parent countries, Muji and Sensible 4 have ambitious plans to develop a fleet of autonomous shuttle buses that can be used in cities across the world, no matter the weather.

A white car with a yellow sign reading "Taxi" on the top

The Golden City for Robotaxis

In April 2019, Tesla CEO Elon Musk announced via Twitter that it was possible for Tesla to put over a million robotaxis on the road by the end of 2020, and while there is not a single Tesla robotaxi available to the public, that does not mean there are no robotaxis. Imagine hailing a cab on San Francisco’s busy streets and when you get in you realize there’s no driver. A situation like this is entirely possible due to the fleet of robotic taxis known as robotaxis already servicing passengers in the Golden City.

In a bid to expand robotaxi transportation operations, the California Public Utilities Commission, a state agency that regulates taxis and other forms of fare-taking transportation, has put forward two draft resolutions that would give robotaxi companies like Cruise and Waymo the ability to “offer passenger service in its autonomous vehicles without a safety driver present throughout the city of San Francisco, at all hours of day or night.” Both companies currently have restrictions placed on their taxi services, Cruise has limited operating hours, and in some cases, Waymo robotaxis must contain a human safety driver in case of automation failure.

Local authorities have argued that the expansion of autonomous taxis in the Golden City could lead to traffic congestion and an increase in car accidents. Protests by the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency and the San Francisco County Transportation Authority are specifically mentioned in the draft resolution but were dismissed.

The California Public Utilities Commission is expected to vote on the resolutions on June 29th, 2023, setting a precedent for other cities including Los Angeles, whose local transportation authorities are also trying to slow the expansion of autonomous taxis.

The AI Elephant in the Room

While sharing the road with fully autonomous vehicles may be inevitable, how much do people trust them? Possibly due to highly publicized accidents, including fatal ones, involving cars with AI-based autopilot systems like Teslas, only 9% of adults in the US in a Morning Consult poll said that they trust self-driving technology “a lot.” And these low confidence scores are not solely an American phenomenon, according to Morning Consult’s March 2022 data, only 18% of all adults in South Korea, 10% in Australia, 8% in Germany, and 6% in the United Kingdom are very interested in buying an autonomous car in the next ten years.

But could the successful rollout of autonomous public transport help increase confidence in driverless vehicles? Only time will tell.

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