The Future of autonomous driving buses

Scania and INIT team up for research project iQMobility

So far, research on autonomous driving in Public Transport has been focusing on mini-buses, carrying 10 to 12 passengers. These vehicles will be perfect for serving on-demand first-/last-mile transportation, or short “on-campus-like” corridors. However, as larger buses will still play the dominant role in the mass transit environment of urban transport, the Swedish vehicle manufacturer, Scania, together with INIT partnered to research the operation of mass transit with autonomously driving buses.

Economic factors dominate the call for autonomous driving in PT. As drivers make up for a large part of the total cost of operation and are ever more difficult to recruit, Public Transport providers are keen to benefit from autonomous driving. The social impact can be kept small by a switch to useful jobs related to service and maintenance.

Already the use case of autonomous operation within depots represents a significant cost saving. Here, the capability of vehicles to move autonomously between parking slots, maintenance and fueling stations reduces the need for time spent by human operators with appropriate driver’s licenses. Due to the simplified operating environment, this is the most viable commercial application of autonomous vehicles in public transportation in the near future. But at the very end, autonomous vehicles will most likely be a natural part of the modal mix. That is why one of the first research projects worldwide was started studying the requirements of fixedroute buses driving autonomously within a public transport environment – iQMobility.

The research project

iQMobility is a Swedish funded project led by Scania, the Swedish vehicle manufacture, which belongs to the Volkswagen Group. It deals with the specific requirements of public transport when it comes to autonomously operated fleets. The aim is to identify what information needs to be exchanged between which components and systems, as well as their technical specifications. Not only do the “driving skills” of autonomously operating buses need to be developed, but they also have to be integrated into a fleet management system, as well as other public transport managing systems, to serve the needs of public transport providers. After a long scouting process, Scania chose INIT, the worldwide leading provider of integrated ITS solutions, as its partner for the integration of autonomous buses in existing public transport networks.

Anders Ställberg of Scania explains: “At Scania we are developing autonomous transport systems where we put the autonomous vehicles in a context. The vehicles themselves will not be the solution; the way they are used and how they are integrated in the overall transport system is what will make the difference. In order to learn and understand the challenges involved when introducing autonomous vehicles in public transport, we needed a strong partner, which we found with the multimodal transport planning and control system provider, INIT. Within public transport we need to understand how our cloud based intelligent control environment, together with our vehicles, can integrate with a current public transport control system such as INIT’s, to be able to jointly meet the requirements of our customers.“

The primary expected result of this project will be the development of a prototype automated urban public transport system. There are three areas of main interest – planning, operation, and depot management – which results in examining questions like: What specifically needed information have to be incorporated in public transport planning systems? How can schedules and real-time ITCS orders be translated into driving instructions the bus control system is able to understand? How do depot management systems need to be enhanced or connected to planning and ITCS systems to support autonomous driving?

Mass-transit requirements

Bus operation is traditionally coordinated and controlled directly through the driver who receives information and instructions from an onboard- unit which is connected to an Intermodal Transport Control System (ITCS).

When the vehicle is autonomous, the driver is no longer the “standard gateway” to set things in motion. Three main tasks are to be replaced by new IT systems currently examined in the iQMobility project: absolute safe driving, real-time flexible operation, and the humane interaction with passengers. Since safety is of the utmost importance, bus manufacturers will make sure that their vehicles are well-connected to their back-offices. It is therefore logical to channel driving instructions and other vital measures directly to the manufacturer’s back-office. For now, this is the system approach of iQMobility for the handling of measures ordered by the ITCS. They will be transmitted to the Scania back-office which transforms them into actual driving instructions for the autonomously driving vehicles.

“The biggest change the future ITCS will see, is the way dispatchers will work with the system and the how technical solutions will replace the information about the on-site situation that now quite often is still provided by the drivers ” explains Kai Brückner, Head of Department Real-Time Systems at INIT. “Our ITCS already incorporates many of the mechanisms needed like traffic jam detection or ad-hoc detours. But they need to be used more extensively and we might as well incorporate further features, which we will determine now in this thrilling project.“ It is yet undetermined how tasks like travel information, ticketing, passenger counting, etc. will be implemented, assumingly there will still be a direct connection to the ITCS. Passenger interaction may turn out to be one of the tougher nuts to crack.


Dirk Weißer

Director Research and Product Strategy
init SE