Until recently, the full arrival of self-driving vehicle technology seemed like the stuff of far off science fiction, a Jetsons future that would always remain an entertaining cartoon without ever quite panning out in reality.
In Helsinki, Finland, two self-driving minibuses, officially labeled the EasyMile EZ10, are the first in the world to be tested in a pilot project called SOHJOA, which will see the buses moving through actual human street traffic.
“Mostly, people have seen the press and aren’t surprised there’s a robot bus,” said Harri Santamala, an engineer at Helsinki Metropolia University of Applied Sciences and the road test project lead to Curbed. “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.’”
Why is this happening in Finland?
Because Finland is one of very few countries in the world that does not legally require every vehicle on public roadways to contain a driver, making the Scandinavian country a hotspot for global players eager to test self-driving vehicle technology in real-world conditions.
The EZ10 buses are actually the product of a French company, EasyMile, which is a joint venture between automaker Ligier and robotics firm Robosoft.
Even with Finland’s lack of legal requirement to have a human driver on board, the EZ10 trial will be conducted with a human supervisor riding along on every journey in case they need to take over.
But the ultimate goal is to develop the technology to a point where human participation is no longer needed, or so that it can be monitored remotely from a central depot.
Furthermore, Helsinki’s experiment with autonomous shuttles is more than just a cute trial with no ultimate goal. It’s a means to an end.
This is Year 2 in the city’s 10-year plan, the ultimate goal of which is to develop a transportation system that is so flexible, cheap and well-coordinated, incorporating a combination of bicycles, public transit and self-driving vehicles into one network, that car ownership will be irrelevant by the year 2025.
The future of transportation envisioned in Helsinki’s plan is to allow citizens access to an integrated transit system via mobile apps through which they can book and pay for trips, whether by bus, train, taxi, bicycle share or car share.
While the Helsinki trial is more a testing ground for the “last mile” portion of a passenger’s journey, making the link between roads that don’t currently have bus service and larger transportation hubs, the EZ10 buses more or less accomplish what most advocates of autonomous transport now envision for the future of self-driving technology, albeit in a limited and somewhat slow way.
The EZ10 buses can hold up to 10 passengers, and have a maximum speed of 40 kilometres per hour.
For the trial, they will travel a fixed route in Helsinki’s Hernesaari neighborhood through the month of September, and will be limited to moving at a speed of just 6 miles per hour, or 10 km per hour.
The EZ10 buses will continue trials later this fall in two other Finnish cities, Espoo and Tampere.
The buses were previously tested in closed road trials in the Netherlands, as well as in a small town just north of Helsinki.
The trial somewhat resembles the shuttle buses being trialed on various campuses in California and other locations by Varden Labs, a company whose self-driving shuttle technology was developed by students at the University of Waterloo.
Singapore has also become a hotbed for self-driving research & development, with its Singapore Autonomous Vehicle Initiative.
In China, internet giant Baidu is reportedly planning to begin mass production of driverless buses within five years.