clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Buses—small, electric, and automated—may be transit’s future

New, 1 comment

Why some believe the first electric, self-guided vehicle you’ll ride should and could be a bus


It may seem unlikely that a bus route that takes passengers to a local sauna would provide a glimpse of transportation’s future. But, to be fair, we’re talking public transit in Finland.

The Sohjoa project, a newly launched autonomous bus trial in Helsinki, Finland, transports up to a dozen passengers at a time through a short, quarter-mile route, a section of the Hernesaari district dotted with restaurants and saunas. According to Harri Santamala, the city’s project coordinator, this small trial is just the beginning. In the spring, the city will launch a larger trial on a regular route through the city to measure customer response and basic operations data.

“We need to get more long-term data, get something operating permanently, and get local people to really use it,” he says. “So far, much of the traffic has been from reporters and people coming to town just to ride the bus.”

It’s hard to blame journalists and curious onlookers from gawking at the small, robotic vehicle, the Easymile EZ-10, a steering wheel-free pod large enough to carry a dozen passengers. While it may appear to be no more than a curiosity—a monorail of mass transit, a ride more fit for a tech-focused theme park than a busy city street—this small shuttle, and others like it, has been touted by some planners, urban theorists, and industry figures as the future of mass transit.

“There’s a lot of demand to solve the last-mile problem,” Santamala says, referring to the problem of getting riders from centralized transit hubs and stations to their final destinations. “I think this is something we could do with automatic buses. On a real-time basis, we can adjust how they drive and where they make the connection. We’ve learned with this pilot that you can be flexible and synchronize with this technology. We could scale this up to the entire fleet.”

At a time when autonomous-vehicle tests and technology are advancing rapidly, and all manner of automakers and tech companies are investing in this transportation revolution, small trials of autonomous buses and shuttles have popped up everywhere from London to the Las Vegas Strip. Buses may seem like a sideshow to the main event, the rise of personalized, on-demand transportation kickstarted by apps like Uber and Lyft and advanced by autonomous vehicles. But big, bulky buses may actually offer a different route forward.


Transforming buses can transform transportation

The workhorses of urban transport, buses, which provide a little over 50 percent of the rides on mass transit in the United States, may not initially seem like the future. Bulky, often slow beasts belching diesel exhaust, they’ve recently seen decreasing popularity in many markets, according to Jeff Hiott, director of operations and standards at the American Public Transportation Association. In New York City, ridership has dropped 16 percent between 2002 and 2015, and Los Angeles saw a 16 percent decline from 2013 to 2016.

“I wouldn’t say there’s trouble in that industry,” he says. “But we’re in a different world now. Our whole mobility world is changing.”

But others have started to see things differently, precisely because of the potential of the same new technology that some believe may be impacting bus ridership. The continued adoption and expansion of Uber and Lyft have led many to begin thinking about the systemic impact of autonomous vehicles, from declining private vehicle ownership to the look of our roads and potential impact on real estate. Many cities, such as Altamonte, Florida, have seen ride-hailing services as the future last-mile solution, subsidizing rides with these services as an affordable way to increase the efficiency of transit system.

According to Jeffrey Tumlin, a principal and transportation planner at ‎Nelson\Nygaard, the biggest issue raised by these services’ rising popularity may be their increased presence on roadways.

“There’s a big concern that ubiquitous, cheap, door-to-door mobility will result in a significant increase in vehicle miles traveled, as well as decreases in walking and biking,” he says.

Tumlin’s assertion, supported by a recent study that found ride-sharing usage increased the number of trips and travel in major cities, reinforces a view he shares with other transit planners: Buses, not cars, may be the way to go when it comes to adopting autonomous transportation in cities. He believes that as cities get denser and more crowded, and the need for greener transport grows, the future of urban transportation is “high-capacity, rubber-wheeled, autonomous vehicles.” In other words, a new generation of buses.

“Cities have a much higher density of travel demand,” he says. “Transit agencies need to be the first adopters of AV technology, or public transit dies in America.”

Autonomous buses and shuttles, he says, like those being trialed in Helsinki, can help transport riders from major transit hubs in an efficient, organized, and less congestion-prone manner. While services like UberPOOL and Lyft Line encourage beneficial car-sharing and can cut emissions, larger vehicles will be needed to truly achieve reduced congestion and pollution on a massive scale.

We’re at a turning point in urban-transit planning, he says, and as cities, states, and the federal government begin planning, plotting, and legislating the future of transit and transportation, buses need to be part of the debate.

“These conversations need to happen immediately, and be informing the debate and laws right now,” he says. “Otherwise, we’re making the exact same mistakes we made in 1933, when cars were first introduced to our cities.”

Plugged in and pushing forward with electric buses

Matt Horton sells buses to transit agencies around the world, so he’s pretty well versed in what people don’t like about the product. For him, a key pain point is perception.

“A lot of what people don’t like about buses is due to the diesel engine at their heart,” says Horton. “Buses are seen as noisy and polluting.”

Horton, the chief commercial officer for Proterra, a U.S.-based manufacturer of electric buses, doesn’t worry about that problem anymore. As recently as five years ago, the idea of mainstreaming electric vehicles, and creating even a small personal car with enough battery life for an American driver, seemed like a far-off scenario. Now, however, with the rise of Tesla, increasing concerns (and actions) over urban pollution, and a budding, if still small, EV marketplace, 100 percent electric buses are not just a reality, but, as Horton sees it, are ready to takeover the market.

“We believe buses will be the first market to go 100 percent electric,” he says.


While that’s the confidence one would expect out of a salesman, his optimism is also supported by rapidly advancing technology and big bumps in sales. In 2017, Proterra has seen major cities begin to go electric in a major way, with Los Angeles, Seattle, Chicago, Miami, Philadelphia, and New York purchasing electric buses for their fleets. Dallas, located in deep-red Texas, has become one of Proterra’s biggest clients. He believes almost 10 percent of new U.S. bus sales will be electric this year, and that electric buses will become a best practice in the industry. And that’s just in the U.S.; China purchased 20,000 electric buses last year.

Electric buses cost upward of $700,000, significantly more than their diesel peers, but Horton says the fuel savings and lower maintenance costs, which save $400,000 over the lifetime of the vehicle, make them cheaper long-term investments.

“We believe transportation will change dramatically over the next 10 years, and think electric buses will be a viable, critical piece of the transportation industry,” he says. “EVs will be seen as the workhorses. Think how this can impact other city fleets, from maintenance crews to garbage trucks.”

An increasing number of transit agencies agree. Terry Williams works for the San Joaquin Regional Transit District in California, which includes the city of Stockton. Located in the Central Valley, the region has some of the worst pollution in the state, as air becomes trapped by the surrounding mountains. It made sense for the agency to adopt electric buses a few years ago, and using grants from the state, it installed a pair of chargers in the central transit hub in Stockton.

San Joaquin Regional Transit District

Recently, it kicked off the country’s first all-electric-bus rapid-transit route, creating a high-speed means of getting between the city and Arch-Airport Road via a special roadway giving the buses right of way. Bus rapid transit, when done well, like Los Angeles’ Orange Line, can create high-speed public transport for a fraction of the cost of light rail. Adding electric power to the mix makes it a cleaner, potentially greener alternative for cities.

“People feel alternative systems like light rail are more attractive,” Williams says. “But with BRT, you can create a transit route that’s almost as efficient as light rail, at the fraction of the cost.”

There are still plenty of perception issues to fight, as well as the preference for personal vehicles. But there’s just no way to reduce noise, emissions, and traffic with single-passenger vehicles. And buses, especially electric ones, offer enormous economic advantages, Williams says.

Displacing the driver and dispersing the route

Many transit experts believe that electric buses become even more valuable when combined with AV technology. These vehicles can charge on their own when not in use, and operate on flexible routes based on passenger demand. And, Tumlin adds, they can help cities pay for bigger and better transit systems, since 40 to 80 percent of transit operating costs are labor.

More importantly, this new generation of vehicles can change how we think of shared mobility. A bus, perhaps, may not even need to be what we normally consider a bus; instead of a fleet composed of larger vehicles on fixed routes, adding smaller autonomous shuttles as a kind of feeder system opens up the possibility of a network as responsive as an app-hailed driver, yet still public and efficient.

Chris Pauly is the director of business development for Navya, a French company that manufactures autonomous shuttles (and just opened up a U.S. factory in Michigan). The company currently has 57 shuttles operating around the world, and has transported a quarter of a million passengers in vehicles without drivers.

He says the company’s vehicles aren’t competing with traditional transit, or even operating on what we would think of as traditional routes across busy city neighborhoods, but instead complementing traditional transit, working on campuses, business parks, and small trial routes. Smaller, niche vehicles can solve the last-mile problem and augment existing rail and bus lines, giving them more value by offering a service that, in the end, is more personalized.

Navya vehicles run smaller routes on campuses, in specific developments, and in controlled travel areas. But Pauly and others have a vision of a more expansive system. Imagine a hub-and-spoke system, operating day and night, and rolling itself into a charging station when it needs more power. Much of the technology is already developed or in development—think of it as borrowing from the advances of ride-hailing services—and tech companies are already at work on creating apps that connect on-demand services with city transit systems, such as MaaS Global (mobility as a service), a Finnish concept that knits together different urban transportation networks to create a single solution to urban mobility.

These smaller, microtransit services face many challenges. Some recent attempts at kickstarting these services, such as Ford’s Chariot system and Bridj, an on-demand busing service, have stumbled or shut down. But that hasn’t deterred cities from trying: Austin tested out the Pickup app last year, and Los Angeles recently announced plans to start its own micro-transit system with the help of a private partner.

Transportation is moving fast, Pauly says, but technology is moving a lot faster than the regulatory environment. Cities need to both embrace and set the rules for transit.

“AV will add more flexibility to serve more riders,” says Hiott. “There are a lot of policy questions that need to be answered as AVs become part of our world.”

The route to better bus service

As technology continues to shift transportation systems, it becomes even more important that cities make it a point to take control, says Tumlin. Electric vehicles, autonomous technology, and driverless shuttles could all combine to create a new vision of what bus service looks like, operating more quickly and more efficiently without the infrastructure investments needed to expand light rail. These kinds of changes could even include making public rights of way for dedicated AV shuttles (increasing traffic congestion hurts the performance and public adoption of buses). But that means public transit agencies and cities need to take the lead, expand investment in technology, and favor the most space-efficient modes of transportation.

“Street capacity is a limited renewable resource,” he says. “We need to manage all our limited resources to achieve the public good.”