Excellent chocolate, accurate clocks, a criminal-friendly banking system. These are all things Switzerland is famous for. Now it might soon add driverless buses to the list: The Swiss city of Sion will begin a two-year trial of two autonomous buses beginning in spring 2016.
The buses come from startup BestMile and will be operated by SwissPost transport subsidiary Car Postal. The company’s name hints at the purpose for these small, nine-person shuttles. They are designed to cover the "last mile," the gap between a regular bus or metro stop and the passenger's own front door.
Unlike Google’s private self-driving vehicles, BestMile’s focus is public transport. It also takes a different approach suited to a network of vehicles running on known routes: the network controls the buses "the same way a control tower does in an airport," writes BestMile. The company is also working with the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne to improve the technology for better control and routing.
This hub-and-shuttle model might prove an excellent alternative to the other commonly-imagined scenario of fleets of driverless "taxis"—a robotic Uber network, offering a similar level of convenience but without putting so many vehicles on the road. Driving on known routes is easier for the buses, too, because they can have detailed internal maps of those routes instead of having to assess road conditions on the fly. It’s notable that the first driverless buses in the U.S. will also use this short-hop model.
Maybe buses will be the first step for driverless vehicles in cities. The possibility is especially good in Europe, where municipal public transport is already well-used in most big cities.