In 2018, the Taiwanese government started to test the autonomous rapid transit (ART) concept through proof-of-service trials. Thousands of people experienced a 9-meter autonomous bus on a fixed bus route in Taichung, the second largest city in Taiwan, with a speed of up to 30 km/h. ART opens a new possibility of autonomous driving and will enable the first commercial use of the automated transit.
The early-stage business case for autonomous cars was based on a belief that computer-controlled cars will reduce traffic congestion and accidents by eliminating human errors. Unfortunately, technology has yet to demonstrate driverless cars’ ability to respond to a real-world traffic challenge. Technology giants and automotive industry continue to promise solutions, and the availability target is moving further and further into the future. At the beginning, unmanned personal cars on the road would likely do more harm than good to the already worsening urban traffic.
Besides, building an autonomous vehicle from scratch is expensive. When required sensors and autonomous driving systems are added to a new $30,000 car, the final price can easily reach $130,000. Purchasing an autonomous car might not be realistic until required technology cost can be lower. In the end, city governments and the public still struggle to justify the real benefits of driverless cars, resulting in the delay of adoption.
LILEE Systems’ ART concept comes from the railway industry and is based upon rail-safety principles. Autonomous buses run on a virtual track, monitored by a centralized operational control center in real time with a fail-safe system. That means, each action taken by the autonomous bus has to be confirmed to be safe locally and remotely before it can be performed. This added layer of safety that has been practiced by the railroads for many years and LILEE Systems ported it into autonomous driving to meet the highest safety standards.
ART is a fixed-route, fixed-speed system, similar to metro or light rail systems. Because its routes and stops are pre-defined and reserved, ART shares the same benefits as rail systems to provide scheduled and predictable services regardless of traffic conditions. Topped with vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2I) communications and smart signals, ART further guarantees travel efficiency.
Speed to market and ROI
Taiwan’s proof-of-service in 2018 also demonstrated the feasibility of modifying regular diesel buses for ART. Without having to purchase new vehicles, it eases the financial stress of city governments and bus operators and increase their willingness to join efforts to participate in ART projects. An $100,000 technology investment in deploying autonomous systems for a $300,000+ commercial vehicle that has the potential to serve 30+ riders each trip is way more practical than the same investment for a $30,000 compact personal car.
Although it is similar to a metro system, ART’s virtual tracks are based on dedicated bus lanes, meaning it does not require costly and time-consuming infrastructure development as for a rail system. In other words, ART shares the same benefits of a metro system yet with significantly lower capital costs and faster speed to market.
As a means of public transportation, ART is more accessible and inviting than private self-driving cars that still sound like a science fiction to many people. Enhanced safety from regulated operations on fixed-route, dedicated lanes and integration of artificial intelligence, low latency wireless communications and a remote monitoring system will also more likely lead to higher consumer confidence in driverless technology, filling the trust gap in between.
How can autonomous public transportation become successful?
Close government-industry collaborations are key to the success of ART. Opening new roads for testing and providing clear regulations are especially critical for continuous validations of the business model. In United states, the City of Jacksonville in Florida and City of Austin in Texas have both initiated plans for automated rapid transit lines in the face of the public transportation challenges, population increases and driver shortages. Tainan, the fifth largest city in Taiwan, also aims to provide autonomous buses in revenue services in 2020. It’s now time for citizens to join the innovation and enjoy the convenient and safe rides that autonomous buses provide.