Billions of dollars have poured into research and testing by companies like Waymo, GM-backed Cruise, Amazon’s Zoox and startup TuSimple to teach cars and trucks how to drive themselves. Meanwhile, transit was an afterthought. That’s changing as North America’s biggest maker of city buses has created a heavy-duty autonomous model it hopes to put into service next year.
The battery-powered Xcelsior AV from New Flyer is the first Level-4 autonomous transit bus being readied for service in North America, with testing to start as early as 2022 in a program with Connecticut’s Department of Transportation. (A human driver will remain at the wheel as a backup.) The 40-foot vehicle, able to carry 80 passengers, is loaded with laser lidar sensors, cameras and radar for 360-degree, 3D vision in daylight or at night, computers, software and a drive-by-wire system provided by Robotic Research, a private engineering firm in Maryland that’s created autonomous vehicles for the Defense Department for about two decades. Navigating massive vehicles safely through urban areas is challenging, but automating transit buses has advantages relative to robotaxis, cars and semi-trucks, says Chris Stoddart, president of Winnipeg-based New Flyer. Those include fixed routes and relatively low speed. “One of the nice things is the ability to pre-map the routes, when you can run your vehicle around that route and pre-map it so that you have some redundancy and don’t have to rely completely on your various visual systems all the time,” Stoddart tells Forbes. “When your average bus speed is only 12.5 mph that certainly helps.” Big tech companies have lavished resources into autonomous driving because they see the potential for billions of dollars in future revenue from ferrying riders in robotaxi services or hauling freight in semi-trucks operated by robotic drivers. While transit services also seem like a good potential fit for the technology, it’s also a smaller, more cost-conscious market, and therefore hasn’t been a priority for the best-known developers. New Flyer’s prototype bus and the Connecticut test program are receiving funds from the Federal Transit Administration’s Integrated Mobility Innovation initiative, which assesses ways advanced technology can improve transit services. The Xcelsior AV’s ability to detect and avoid pedestrians and other vehicles, owing to its advanced sensors, could help transit operators cut down on accidents and insurance costs, which could be a significant savings long term, said Kirk Burcar, New Flyer’s vice president of engineering. It’s also designed to share information including route conditions and road hazards with other buses in the network to keep vehicles moving as efficiently as possible. Routine tasks like aligning the bus closer to curbs and rider platforms or parking vehicles tightly in agency depots may be done more efficiently with autonomous systems. The system developed by Robotic Research also allows multiple buses to “platoon” in convoys, operating closely like multicar trains in cities with high ridership needs. The company developed a fleet of 100 autonomous heavy trucks for the Defense Department–double the number of self-driving semis currently operated by TuSimple–and has also worked on autonomous shuttles, including Local Motors’ robotic Olli models, said Alberto Lacaze, president of Robotic Research. New Flyer’s autonomous bus “unlocks a new era of transportation as a service, leveraging technological advancements across industries to create a safer, cleaner, more efficient and more accessible transportation solution for the public,” he said. New Flyer’s Xcelsior AV is loaded with advanced sensors, including laser lidar that helps vehicles see their surroundings in 3D. New Flyer And while Robotic Research isn’t as well-known as a self-driving tech developer as Waymo or Cruise, Lacaze is confident in its capabilities. “There’s probably no company that has 100 autonomous trucks or even close to the 100 autonomous trucks we have deployed. There are probably no companies that have been deployed in 20 cities and are running autonomously right now.” New Flyer initially will build and test at least three of the robotic buses and operate them exclusively in dedicated bus-only lanes in Connecticut. Federal regulations for transit buses don’t yet allow the general deployment of autonomous vehicles on all regular routes, so it could be several years before the technology is widely available. A human will also likely remain at the wheel as a backup for the foreseeable future, potentially being able to provide more service and attention to riders than is currently possible, according to New Flyer. “Everyone is going to be cautious. We’re going to be because we want to just take baby steps,” Stoddart said. At the same time, New Flyer will benefit from competition between makers of sensors and other technologies developed for robotaxis and autonomous big rigs. “We’re going to piggyback off of the volumes that are going to come from automotive and trucking.” The news didn’t help shares of NFI Group, New Flyer’s parent company, which fell 3.7% to close at C$28.16 in Toronto on Friday.