The Finnish capital, Helsinki plans to launch a new bus line operated with one self-driving bus to start operation in the fall of 2017. The introduction of Helsinki RoboBusLine represents a shift from an experimental phase to regular, scheduled public transit service with self-driving buses. Paving the way for RoboBus, two driverless minibuses have been tested in real traffic conditions in Helsinki and other Finnish cities since summer 2016, and these test runs will continue in Helsinki in summer 2017.
The Sohjoa project launched two EasyMile EZ10 electric minibuses in Helsinki’s Hernesaari waterfront district in mid-August 2016 to carry passengers on a straight quarter-mile course on a public street. With an operator on board in case of an emergency, the buses traveled at 11 km per hour (7 m.p.h.), learning the route and accruing knowledge about autonomous bus operation. Sohjoa is an EU-financed joint project by the six largest cities of Finland, Finnish universities, and transportation authorities to prepare for new public transit services and autonomous vehicles.
After the Helsinki debut, Sohjoa self-driving bus trials have continued in the Finnish cities of Espoo and Tampere, to resume in Helsinki for July-August 2017, when the buses will shuttle passengers in Helsinki’s Mustikkamaa recreational island to Helsinki Zoo.
Sohjoa project manager Oscar Nissin of Helsinki Metropolia University of Applied Sciences explains that Sohjoa is a game opener in autonomous bus R&D, saying, “We focus on a number of aspects including sensor technology, user experience, and how to complement overall public transit services with self-driving buses.”
The Helsinki RoboBusLine project moves forward from Sohjoa’s short-term experiments toward established use with a three-year project. The current project leader, Metropolia’s smart mobility program director Harri Santamala explains, “RoboBus will allow us to test operation in everyday public transit conditions. It will be used to study the long-term operability of self-driving buses and customer behavior.”
The road vehicle for RoboBusLine is an electric minibus currently under acquisition through a competitive bid process. The route, the launch date, and the schedule will be announced later. The acquisition is supported by City of Helsinki.
One of the factors that make Finland a forerunner in self-driving vehicle operation is Finnish law, which does not state that a vehicle has to have a driver.
Self-driving buses could offer a solution to the last mile of public transit in Helsinki — taking riders from a regular public transit stop to their homes. Automated, remote-controlled bus service could markedly reduce the costs of the last-mile service and improve access to public transit. The ultimate goal is to increase public transit use and so to reduce cars and needs to drive in the city.
Helsinki RoboBusLine is one component of Helsinki’s contribution to the EU-financed mySMARTLife program, in which European cities develop smart, energy-efficient mobility and lifestyles. The mySMARTLife program goal is to reduce energy consumption in cities by 10-15 percent. mySMARTLife is part of the EU’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation program, which includes development of new urban solutions to mitigate climate change.