Finland’s capital, Helsinki, is known for many things: Marimekko, a forthcoming Guggenheim outpost, its new public sauna. But now, the Finnish city is making headlines for hosting two of the world’s first self-driving buses.
For the next month, a pair of electric-powered Easymile EZ-10 vehicles are carrying up to 12 public passengers along a fixed route in Helsinki’s Hernesaari neighborhood. The buses were previously tested on closed roads in the Netherlands and in a small Finnish town just north of Helsinki. But this trial—with autonomous buses carrying riders along public urban streets—is one of the first of its kind anywhere on the globe.
Members of the public can hop on and off at pre-defined points along the route.
"Mostly, people have seen the press and aren’t surprised there's a robot bus," said Harri Santamala, the road test project lead. "But every once in a while we meet local people who haven’t heard about it. They don’t quite believe it. They’re asking, ‘Really? Is it possible that I can get in?’ We’re saying ‘Yes.’"
Finland is one of the only countries in the world that does not legally require every vehicle on public roadways to contain a driver. Because of this feature, the country is fast becoming a popular testing site for self-driving technology.
"We need to have human drivers, but the human doesn’t need to be physically in the vehicle. You can remotely supervise a fleet," explained Santamala. "When this regulation was written in the 70s, there was no mention the driver has to hold the steering wheel or be in the car. So the Minister of Transportation decided with the government agency that, for testing purposes, we can allow supervised autonomous operation on the road."
This test project is being coordinated by Helsinki’s Metropolia University of Applied Sciences with the aim of better understanding how the vehicles fare in real-world traffic. The buses are limited to traveling at an average speed of just 6 miles an hour (10 km/hour) to minimize risk as they share the open road with other cars and pedestrians for the first time.
While the vehicles could be supervised remotely, a supervisor able to manually take over the bus is onboard for the duration of the test. Santamala told Curbed that these human drivers had intervened just a handful of times so far.
"We have made a few [manual] stops, but mainly because we wanted to stay just a little further away from something happening on the street, like a truck making a u-turn," Santamala told Curbed. "The bus would have stopped on its own, but we wanted to be overly cautious."
Two years ago, Helsinki embarked on a decade-long plan to make personal car ownership obsolete in the city. Self-driving buses have the potential to be a "last mile" solution, ferrying commuters to larger transit hubs where they can access higher-volume means of travel like the city’s Metro system.
"We are not aiming to substitute bigger buses with autonomous buses," said Santamala. "We want to bring these somewhere where the conditions don’t permit a normal bus line [because of] a narrow street or its not dense enough. We could fill a gap in the mobility chain, make it more efficient and effective."
As Alissa Walker wrote in her examination of self-driving buses, studies looking at the projected impact of such vehicles is overwhelmingly positive: "By nearly every metric, the self-driving buses improved on the current condition: emissions were down, congestion was down, and the city needed fewer overall vehicles. Not only that, but the experience was better for riders, who didn’t have to wait or make transfers, meaning they could spend more time working or with their families."
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