Bus with brains & brawn

Amsterdam, July 18: Daimler Buses presents a sneek preview of its ‘city bus of the future’ prior to the IAA motor show in September.

Amid much pomp and ceremony, the Mercedes Benz Future Bus with CityPilot reveals itself to be a slickly designed, semi-automated  vehicle based on a standard 12-metre Citaro. And forget the ‘probably‘ – its makers have no qualms billing their creation ‘the most advanced bus that has ever hit the road’.

On the horizon_BRT stop

More precisely, it hit a Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) road in the Netherlands.

The concept was put through its self-driving paces along half of the 40km BRT Airport Line 300 (the longest in Europe) reaching between Amsterdam and Haarlem. “And it wasn’t a lab test but ran in real live conditions,” insists Hartmut Schick, head of Daimler Buses.

Driving at speeds of up to 70km/hr, the performance highlights (experienced live by Passion4Transport) of the bus include drawing in neatly at curbs, communicating with traffic lights, negotiating tight turns and tunnels, and braking smoothly in response to obstacles and pedestrians. Note, don’t underestimate the importance of a smooth bus ride! Injuries to passengers on board caused by abrupt braking are more frequent that one might think – even more than those involving buses-meet-pedestrians.

‘Board me! shouts the vehicle design, both inside and out. Yet key to the overall concept is the less extrovert yet highly intelligent CityPilot, the ‘brains’ behind the bus. Enabling it to operate in semi-autonomous mode, the system features some seriously sharp technology and functions, notably:

-a sophisticated sensor system comprising cameras – lane, global localisation and close-up; short- and long-range radar; GPS; and  Vehicle2Infrastructure communication

-the vehicle can pull out, accelerate and brake to standstill by itself: CityPilot works as a condition automat, processesing the input parameters of the sensor-based systems

-revised Human Machine Interface (HMI): cameras and mirror cams serve to accompany the ‘new role’ of the driver (henceforth known as the ‘operator’) – “by adding 20 eyes to his or her two” – plus a 13-inch display in the cockpit/cab (see how the terminology is changing too!) to provide all the information they require to monitor the system. So while there is always a driver on board, their job is purported to be less stressful than before

-negotiating traffic lights: Wi-Fi is used in both directions – for the bus to ‘talk’ to the traffic lights and so benefit from a ‘green wave’ and pass; for the lights to inform the bus of its status – “all in all ensuring  a smooth and efficient ride in hands-off mode,” explains Mr Schick. “And if a wireless signal is not available, the bus uses a camera integrated in its windshield”

-precision docking at bus stops: the goal is to achieve a gap of 10cm or less between the bus platform and curb. The close-up cameras detect bus stops and give input variables for longitudinal & lateral control on arriving

IAA Preview 2016 Daimler Buses; Mercedes-Benz Future Bus mit Cit

-obstacle recognition: four short range radar sensors detect obstacles such as pedestrians up to 10 metres in front of the vehicle; the stereo camera detects pedestrians within a range of 5 to 50m

“Combining autonomy and connectivity,  enhancing efficiency and safety, we see enormous potential in this kind of vehicle/system, which  is the Group’s answer to the challenge of urban public transport,” says Wolfgang Bernhard, CEO Daimler Trucks & Buses.

The benefits of the connectivity, says Daimler, are networking with infrastructure (e.g. traffic lights), WLAN for passengers, and telematics. And as regards efficiency, fuel consumption is reduced (and CO2 emissions too as a consequence), journey times are shortened (phased traffic lights), and there should be no more curb/wheel damage. Plus there’s the safety factor – the technology, unlike the human factor, is never tired or distracted.

No compromise: going forward, Daimler is well aware that proving the safety of this kind of bus – by ensuring the technology is both robust and reliable – is absolutely vital

“Autonomous driving is already a reality for our trucks since 2014. Yet with the autonomous bus we didn’t simply want to do a cut-and-past job,” says Gustav Tuschen, head of R&D, Daimler Buses. “The objective was to shift from the Highway pilot [trucks)] to the Citypilot [city buses] by incorporating all our know-how together with operating functionalities specific to the urban context.

“We drew up our approach for the partly autonomous city bus 18 months ago, but of course not starting from scratch,” he adds. “For instance in 1983, we introduced the active safety brake.”

The approach involved equipping a standard 12-metre Citaro C2 with all the technology, while in parallel using a second vehicle to develop the design concept.

Look & feel good factors

“Taking the bus should be a pleasurable experience like hanging out in a park, a café, on your sofa,” says Dr Bernhard. One doesn’t usually equate taking the bus with pleasure, but this is the journey experience Daimler is hoping to achive with the Future Bus, and in part due to its design.

Open plan and light, the interior is divided into three areas – the ‘service‘ near the cockpit, the ‘express‘ and ‘lounge‘ – that seek to cater for passengers’ needs (standing, sitting) depending on the length of their trip.

The seats themselves are arranged along the walls in asymmetrical groups to give an impression of structured space with various retreats.

Innovative grab rails reflect Dr Bernhard’s park vision by branching upwards like trees towards the two-tone ceiling, whose lighting resembles a leaf canopy.

An interior light strip is designed to facilitate orientation on board. This changes colour between white (manual mode) and blue (semi-automated mode) depending on the operating status of the bus.

IAA Preview 2016 Daimler Buses; Mercedes-Benz Future Bus mit Cit

The electronic ticketing system means less work for the driver/operator and smoother boarding and alighting (no ticket queues at the entrance). Likewise to keep passengers on the flow, the doors typically facing the cockpit and behind the rear axle have been replaced by two double-width doors between the axles.

The revamped cockpit, without any partition, itself forms an integral part of the interior space. A certain degree of separation occurs automatically, however, due to the omission of the front entry door.

IAA Preview 2016 Daimler Buses; Mercedes-Benz Future Bus mit Cit

The current speed is shown digitally in the centre, plus the route ahead with the next traffic lights and bus stops, and the distances to them, with symbols. The display also reports impending activities, e.g. when an automatic stop is due at a traffic light or bus stop, vehicles ahead, or any obstacles on the road, and indicates the distance to them. Tunnel entrances and exits ahead are also shown.

If the bus is driven in manual mode, a second speedometer is added as a dial instrument with segments, and the figures in the digital display are enlarged.

Two 43-inch monitors, embedded in an overhead console in the in the middle segment of the vehicle, keep passengers in the loop, e.g. progress of bus along the route, information and entertainment similar to that in an airport waiting area, news, advertising spots…

Emissions in the picture

While Euro 6 compliant, a possible alternative drive for the Future Bus is the new
Mercedes-Benz M 936 G gas engine, which delivers even lower emissions and quieter running. Furthermore Mercedes-Benz has announced a battery-electric drive system for city buses for 2018.

Boosting BRT appeal

Since BRT systems operate in dedicated lanes, they offer an ideal environment for testing this kind of concept bus, making it easy to navigate and providing an opportunity to make full use of the vehicle intelligence.The route in Amsterdam was selected because Daimler didn’t want to build one specifically, yet was seeking a certain performance level, not a small scale operation, and one in real-life operation, plus easy to access for people to visit the demonstration (close to Schipol airport).

On average, Airport Line 300, which operated by the Dutch transport company Connexxion, is used by over 125 000 passengers every day

“BRT is a highly efficient public transport solution,” says Thomas Tonger, head of product planning & management, Daimler Buses.  “Its strengths being separated lanes and traffic prioritisation, a pre-ticketing system (validating on board – more efficient than purchasing from driver), barrier free entry – especially important for PRM and for increasing boarding and alighting flow; specific vehicles with specific design – look this is a high  quality public transport system- to attract people to modal shift.”

By bringing partly automated driving to BRT, Daimler expects to make the systems more efficient, reduce wear of the fleets and costs of spare parts, i.e. improve the residual value of buses.

On the horizon_BRT

One typically divides BRT into two types – the system common to cities in Latin America, i.e. ‘a metro with buses’ (the closest to this type in Europe is that of Istanbul); and the Bus with a High Level of Service (BHLS) operation in Europe – ‘like a tram, with buses’.

35 of the world’s 180 BRT systems worldwide rely on 18,000 Mercedes-Benz buses, i.e. one in two BRT buses

Strasbourg: keen to increase the city share of public transport (just 13% in 2009), its BRT Line G opened in 2013; 5km long; 5-minute service frequency; average speed of 21km/hr (faster than regular buses) It transports some 10,000 passengers a day.

“Once the funding is approved, it’s faster to implement  a BRT than a tramway,” points out Mr Tonger. “For instance, Strasbourg took just three years from approval to the start of commercial service.”

Istanbul: challenges of inefficienct public transport, a soaring population and traffic congestion. Opened in 2007, its BHLS system now covers 52km, average speed of 40km/hr, and an impressive service frequency of 25 seconds. Around 750,000 people opt to use the system every day.

In 2006, the public transport share in Rio de Janeiro was 22%, but various factors, including events such as the Fifa World Cup in 2014, led to the opening of a first BRT line in 2012. At 56km long, the route runs a bus every minute at an impressive average speed of 50km/hr. One of three lines now making up the BRT system, it carries 220,000 passengers daily.

IAA Preview 2016 Daimler Buses; Mercedes-Benz Future Bus mit Cit

Counting the cost

Rather than giving a ball park figure for its Future Bus, Daimler prefers to deflect attention onto the total cost of ownership (TCO). “As of today, approximately 40% of TCO can be influenced by the manufacturer,” says Thomas Tonger, head of product planning and management. “In the case of Daimler Buses, we are combining parts from our passenger car division to bring down the costs.”

On the roads

The Future Bus is already in public operation in Germany, following an exemption from Stuttgart’s state transport authority (according to Section 70 of the German vehicle licensing regulations), based on an expert report by TÜV Rhineland. This special permit allows the vehicle to run on public roads despite deviating from normal technical and service specifications.

“We are living in an increasingly urbanised world – every four days a city the size of Amsterdam is being added,” says Dr Bernhard, CEO. “The major challenge is to move all these people fast and comfortably.”

Trucks, cars and buses… autonomous vehicles (AV) are definitely moving closer towards becoming a reality. Many cities and transport operators around the world are already embracing the technology and exploring how best to include it in their existing infrastructure and services.

This August 3,  the Council of Ministers gave the green light for testing autonomous and semi-autonomous vehicles on the French roads.

On the initiative of public transport operator RATP, the AV is included in the French government’s Nouvelle France Industrielle project. To this effect RATP has launched an AV research and innovation programme with several trials in view. The operator has also acquired two vehicles (12 to 15 seats) from French constructors Easymile and Navya. The objective of this initiative, it says, is ‘to explore and anticipate the integration of this mobility mode, which may well become part of the everyday transport landscape in the next 15 years.’

On the horizon_RATP

Trials of three automated pods are already underway in the city centre of Milton Keynes – the first U.K. pilot of the vehicle technology in public pedestrianised spaces. And in early 2017 Volvo will launch Drive Me London, a testing programme of semi-autonomous driving cars ‘using real families on public roads.’

PostBus Switzerland is also exploring the potential of AV. In June 2016 the operator officially launched the commercial pilot service of two self-driving shuttles (also by Navya) in the city of Sion. The authorities granted approval for the pilot project, baptised SmartShuttle, which is running in a specified area up to October 2017.

On the horizon_Knight Rider

With AVs expected to come to maturity from 2020, the coming years will prove key to resolving open questions over this new mobility mode, e.g. road safety, regulations and legislation, and, of course, do people want what this technology can offer them?

While it is unlikely we’ll be seeing a Knight Rider-style (advanced, artificially intelligent, self aware and nearly indestructible) vehicle in public use any time soon, more realistic takes on the driverless car, truck and bus are certainly on the horizon…

 

 

 

 

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