Following several months of trials on private land, Switzerland’s leading public bus operator, PostBus, has begun testing autonomous electric buses on public roads in the historical district of Sion, the largest city of the Canton of Valais, in the country’s first ever testing of this type of passenger transport in public areas.
PostBus is running the project in a partnership with the Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne (EPFL), and Mobility Lab Sion Valais, with the objective of helping researchers develop more effective fleet management algorithms for smart mobility systems, improve traffic conditions, and advance the study of the interaction of the public with self-driving vehicles. Both the Federal Roads Office (FEDRO) and the road traffic department of the canton have granted approval special permits to PostBus, as statutory regulations for the use of autonomous vehicles on public roads have not yet been finalized.
The tests will run until October 2017, and the various organizations involved in the tests have attached great importance to the safety of passengers and other road users. To meet all the technical and legal requirements, the two French-built Navya autonomous vehicles have been further developed, and now have air conditioning, and feature permanent ventilation and windscreen wipers for optimum visibility through the windshield. A second backup battery with an output of 16.5kW ensures greater autonomy of the vehicles, and due to a ramp, people with limited mobility can also use the shuttles. The autonomous vehicles have 11 seats and travel at a maximum speed of 12.4mph (20km/h).
PostBus is responsible for the operation, safety and maintenance of the shuttles. Under the direction of an operations manager, a remote ‘teleoperator’ uses a special fleet management platform from EPFL spin-off BestMile to provide a real-time overview and remote control over the fleet, and the passengers’ interfaces. The teleoperator also passes instructions to the safety drivers who are on board for every journey the shuttles make, and are responsible for monitoring operations, and the safety of passengers. They can apply the emergency brakes by pressing one of the two emergency buttons installed in the vehicle.
The autonomous shuttles operate on a route in Sion’s old town and serve several stops, two of which are fixed. One is at Place de la Planta, the other at Place du Midi, where the stop has a screen that displays the location of the two vehicles in real time, and passengers can also use an app to check the shuttles’ position on the route. Use of the autonomous shuttles is free of charge and the service offers passengers a flexible timetable. During the project’s first phase, the service will run every afternoon from Tuesday to Sunday. The operators expect to be able to extend the operating times after the initial implementation phase, with the goal of operating according to a regular schedule in the near future. PostBus wants to connect places that were not previously serviced by public transport, in order to close the first-mile/last-mile gap, not to replace buses on existing routes with autonomous vehicles.