We are facing a major shift in how we transport ourselves. Self-driving vehicles are already with us and soon they will be ready for use on public roads. This may free up space for people – both in urban and rural environments.
“Over the next few years we will see major changes that affect not only the traffic on our roads but also how we choose to live, work and socialise. Perhaps this will also open up opportunities for more people to live as they choose?” ponders Birger Löfgren, mobility researcher at RISE.
Can a four and a half metre bus drive a change in the appearance of our cities? Can a bus provide more space for people and reduce the need for major roads?
It is very possible; however, let us begin with some background on why our cities look the way they do today.
How people have chosen to gather and organise their lives has changed throughout history. The first settlements grew up around fresh water and fertile soil. Towns and cities became increasingly clearly delineated, with walls to guard against external threats. These urban spaces were dimensioned for people, with narrow alleys as well as open squares, and this is how they continued their expansion; a multitude of small roads carrying small amounts if traffic into the city.
However, after World War II, something happened. Throughout the western world, private car ownership blossomed and towns and cities were built accordingly. The pattern now was major roads with large traffic flows; cities planned for the transportation of the individual. Sleep in one area of the city, shop in another, work in a third and socialise in yet another. In many places, the urban environment was dimensioned for the automobile.
“As modern cities grow, for many families one car is no longer enough. They require two in order to reasonably get were they’re going,” says Birger Löfgren.
Friendly self-driving bus
Birger Löfgren is project manager for S3, a project in which self-driving buses operate in normal traffic along predefined routes in Gothenburg. Autonomous Mobility, municipally-owned parking company Göteborgs Stad Parkering, Chalmers and Ericsson are among those involved in the project – a development that may eventually alter our urban landscape from the ground up. From multilane motorways to open spaces in which people can come together. From long queues of single-occupancy vehicles to free-flowing traffic, because we share the available space. And one route there may be via your friendly, neighbourhood self-driving bus.
Today, these buses traffic fairly simple routes, although the plans currently being drafted will cover an entire district.
In simplified terms, the development of self-driving vehicles is following two main routes, the first of which is based on making traditional vehicles more autonomous step-by-step. S3 take another route entirely, beginning with the development of a self-driving vehicle.
“We are already sharing the road with other traffic – and we are successively increasing the level of difficulty facing the bus.
The electric buses used for the S3 project run along their designated routes, not quickly but safely and autonomously. It is clear at first glance that S3 buses are something out of the ordinary; for example, they have no driver’s seat and therefore no steering wheel.
“The first steps towards selfdriving vehicles will be into a niche market,” says Birger Löfgren. “We are beginning to see commercial solutions for the first and last kilometres. I meet companies who need this whenever I’m out presenting the project.
First and last kilometre
One example could be where IKEA is building a new store in an area poorly served by public transport, or where the nearest bus stop is so far away that many customers will find it nigh on impossible to get there by public transport.
“In cases like this, IKEA can choose to operate their own shuttle service, whereas with current technology approximately half of the cost goes to employing a driver. A selfdriving bus is good from a marketing standpoint, while at the same time one shouldn’t underestimate the value of being seen as a company at the technological cutting edge,” says Birger Löfgren.
First and last kilometre solutions are vital when it comes to the transition to a greater share for public transport. Public transport with multiple branches and a high frequency of services is expensive. Solutions in which major trunk lines travelling longer routes are serviced by branch lines operated using self-driving buses may provide cost-effective, sustainable alternatives.
In addition to identifying new methods to transport people and goods, this development is also being driven by a further need, to free up attractive urban land currently occupied by necessary car parks.
“There are currently provisions in place stating that there must be a certain number of parking spaces according to predetermined values; however, there is a considerable desire on the part of both politicians and developers to reduce this,” explains Birger Löfgren.
Avoiding the need to build large numbers of parking spaces frees up both more space for people and money for investment in various mobility solutions that further reduce the need for city centre car parks.
These traffic solutions are close to being put to practical use but what can they lead to in the long term? Birger Löfgren is willing to stick his chin out and predict that they will lead to more people choosing to live outside of urban centres.
“Within 20 years, we will see swarms of selfdriving vehicles covering transportation needs across a greater area. This will reduce the need for private car ownership enormously. When you combine this with the inevitable changes to our working lives caused by developments in IT, we are in the midst of the fourth industrial revolution. Many people will be able to work just as effectively from home, in a self-driving vehicle or once they have arrived at the office.”
More space for people
Once obstacles such as traffic jams, the expense of running two cars and time lost by actively driving to and from work are eliminated, opportunities are increased for living outside of urban areas.
“This will facilitate a more dispersed demographic and thriving rural communities.”
Urban centres will see reduced traffic; instead of large numbers of single-occupancy vehicles arriving, parking and departing, self-driving vehicles will pick people up at hubs and drive them to their destination. door-to-door.
“We will no longer need the wide roads we have today. This will open up more space for people in city centres. These vehicles will happily coexist with pedestrians. We will see more flexible tram networks.”
Instead of a few major traffic flows, urban areas will be characterised by multiple smaller flows.
“This is all based on us travelling collectively to a greater extent. These small, selfdriving buses are a step in this transition.”
Tests in Gothenburg are being conducted using 14-seat minibuses. Shuttle buses reduce the need for parking spaces, stimulating a denser urban environment. The aim of the project is to test how new public transport solutions can contribute to ongoing sustainable urban development. The project forms part of the Swedish Government’s cooperation programme Next-generation Travel and Transport, and is partly financed by Vinnova through Drive Sweden at Lindholmen Science Park.