This fall, Finland will integrate a pair of self-driving electric buses into regular public transportation in Helsinki. The buses are part of Finland's Sohjoa project, (part of the larger, EU-financed mySMARTLife program) involving the six largest cities in Finland. It's focused on bringing energy efficient mobility to European cities.
The buses themselves are EasyMile EZ10 models from innovative automotive company EasyMile, which specializes in electric, self-driving vehicles. According to the company's website, the Ez10 is an "electric shuttle dedicated to smart mobility designed to cover short distances and predefined routes in multi-use environments."
The bus has no steering wheel, no specific front or rear, and requires no infrastructure to operate, as a train or trolley would. Instead, the Ez10s run back and forth along a reprogrammed line, shuttling up to 12 people at a top speed of about 15 miles per hour. Those in Helsinki are planned to run at just 7 miles per hour.
But as the EasyMile website points out, these buses serve a different purpose than traditional public transportation vehicles: "EZ10 is not about speed it is about covering short distances (last mile concept) where conventional means of transportation are not relevant but at the same time distances are too long to walk all the more when facing adverse weather conditions!"
Those hesitant to get on board, literally and figuratively, with the concept of self-driving vehicles may well be comforted by the Ez10's low speed, and the fact that every bus will have an operator on board, in case of an emergency.
In Finland, the buses have already been tested in various traffic conditions and will continue to be monitored until August. According to Oscar Nissin of Helsinki Metropolia University of Applied Sciences, the buses are tested in a variety of ways during their trial periods, as he explains, “We focus on a number of aspects including sensor technology, user experience, and how to complement overall public transit services with self-driving buses.”
From July to August, the buses will run between Helsinki’s Mustikkamaa recreational island and the Helsinki Zoo. In the fall, they will be launched along an undisclosed route in Helsinki, where they have the potential to become a permanent part of the city's public transportation system.
Around the world, electric vehicles continue to make headlines and seem to be catching on with the public, slowly but surely. But because self-driving technology is outlawed in many places, including most parts of the United States, testing is difficult and public awareness remains fairly low.
It is easy to imagine that in Finland (where self-driving vehicles are completely legal) testing of the EZ10 buses may well serve as influential example to the rest of the world. The goal of reducing air pollution and carbon emissions is an admirable one, which cities around the globe may well wish to emulate. As one press release stated, "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.”