One year of Switzerland's first driverless bus

Sion SmartShuttle minibus
The old meets the new

Switzerland's first two driverless buses completed one year of experimental service on 23 June 2017, taking up to 15 passengers at a time through the mainly pedestrian streets of the Valais capital, Sion. They've become "a genuine tourist attraction" and carried 21,500 passengers on 312 days in the past year, says the federal PostBus company.

By Peter Hulm

The experimental SmartShuttle service is due to continue until the end of October. The utilitarian rationale has been to transport heavily-laden shoppers and pensioners 1.5km through the pedestrian streets to conventional bus stops on the edge of the city centre.

But PostBus/PostAuto and the authorities are already considering an extension to explore other options such as a bus "on demand" function.

My first ride

I took a ride one week after the service started and it seemed already to have become part of Sion's normal life with a mixture of tourists and locals, young and old folk, shoppers and business folk hopping on and off (see http://lenews.ch/2016/06/30/driverless-buses-let-loose-on-the-streets-of-swiss-alpine-town/).

Reactions 'mostly positive'

PostBus said its SmartShuttle passengers (69 per half day) included "several thousand who have come especially from other parts of Switzerland and from abroad". Passengers' reactions were "for the most part, very positive once they have arrived at their destination," PostBus added.

Average speed: 6kmh

The two 11-seater yellow electric vehicles (with room for four people standing) are built by the French company Navya. Top speed is theoretically 20kmh. In fact they drove at an average of 6 km/h. My trip around town lasted 40 minutes with lots of stops for pedestrian and delivery traffic.

Try Friday for a trip

The buses run only in the afternoon and not every day. My recommendation would be Friday. Do the Sion market in the morning, lunch, and take the Smartshuttle for a ride when it starts at 3 pm. Two Fridays a month (e.g. next on 21 July) you can take a guided tour at 6.30-8 pm for CHF15 (in English on demand).

Other towns interested

The SmartShuttles "have attracted the attention of numerous companies, both at home and abroad, as well as numerous public institutions – in particular municipalities and associations – interested in testing this technology in situ," PostBus says. As a result, another 20,000 passengers travelled on the minibuses at exhibitions abroad during the year.

Running for World Health Assembly in Geneva

In all, the shuttles were in operation for 312 days and covered more than 4,500 km. The bus was also tried out with success in Geneva to shuttle delegates to and fro during the recent World Health Assembly.

One accident

Both minibuses were taken off the road for two weeks after an accident at the end of the day on 21 September last year. One of them hit a delivery van when the SmartShuttle's sensor failed to recognize the van's protuding tailgate.

All the buses have an attendant who can override the controls, but on this occasion he failed to spot the danger and only intervened when the bus stopped. Both vehicles suffered minor damage but no-one was hurt.

Software adjusted

In the software, the 3D memory system that serves as a navigational map for the shuttle has been adjusted several times, PostBus notes: "The attendants keep a precise journal and record any necessary interventions they make."

Biggest problem: parked vehicles

PostBus reports: "From time to time, they need to avoid obstacles such as badly parked vehicles in manual mode. These are the main causes of interventions, accounting for 80 per cent of the cases."

EPFL researchers

The fleet management software developer is BestMile in Lausanne and researchers at the Federal Politechnic EPFL are testing and improving the algorithms that control the automated shuttle fleet.

Further info

PostBus SmartShuttle websites:

https://www.postauto.ch/en/news/first-anniversary-smartshuttles

https://www.postauto.ch/en/news/smartshuttle-testing-sion-resumes

Factsheet:

https://www.postauto.ch/en/file/98369/download?token=icoenWcY

Operating hours:

https://www.postauto.ch/en/smartshuttle

webvideo: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MEaBx9CiqEk&

Navya website: http://www.zdnet.fr/actualites/j-ai-essaye-a-lyon-le-vehicule-electrique-autonome-navya-arma-39832598.htm