A full-size autonomous bus took to public roads for the first time in the UK this week, as CAVForth began a landmark two-week trial in Scotland.
Cars of the Future readers will recognise the name as, almost a year ago to the day, we published a long-read interview with Jim Hutchinson, CEO of Fusion Processing, one of the partners in the project, along with Stagecoach, Alexander Dennis and Transport Scotland.
He explained then how Fusion was involved in the Gateway project in London, and how that led to CAVForth. “The hope is that it will go from a pilot service to a full service,” he said. “It’s being registered as a new route, providing a service that wasn’t previously there, and Stagecoach anticipate around 10,000 journeys a week.
“The route includes a mix of road environments – motorway, bus lanes, roundabouts, signalled interchanges – so from our point of view it makes for a great demonstration of capability. There’s the technology side, which Fusion is focussed on, but there’s also key research around public acceptance.
“It will be a very significant achievement to demonstrate a Level 4 capability on that class of vehicle – a big thing for the UK which will be noticed around the world.”
UK self-driving first
Well, 12 months on, CAVForth is very much on schedule. Level 4 automation, according to the SAE International standard, means no human is driving and, unlike Level 3, won’t be required to take over. Make no mistake, this is a big deal.
Around 500 members of the public have provided feedback on what would make them feel “comfortable and confident in travelling”. As a result, a decision has been made to keep a member of staff on board.
The test phase will run for two weeks in preparation for the launch of the CAVForth pilot this summer. That’s when things will get really exciting, with passengers.
Stagecoach plans to recruit 20 specially trained ‘Autonomous Bus Professionals’ from across its East Scotland business. When the service goes live, these experienced bus drivers will monitor the autonomous system alongside a ‘Captain’, who will move around the bus answering any questions passengers may have about the service.
Part-funded by the UK Government’s Centre for Connected and Autonomous Vehicles (CCAV), five single-decker autonomous buses will operate at SAE Level 4 over the Forth Road Bridge, between Ferrytoll Park and Ride in Fife and the Edinburgh Park Train and Tram Interchange.
The buses will be fitted with Fusion Processing’s CAVstar sensor and control technology, enabling them to run on pre-selected roads without the safety driver having to intervene.
A nugget to note here, as Hutchinson explained to us last year: “We developed the CAVstar platform as a scalable solution – a drive system we could put into pretty much any vehicle, from small cars up to HGV.” Think about the potential.
The CAVForth buses will carry up to 36 passengers over a 14-mile route and, to support the project, Transport Scotland recently opened a section of Actively Managed Hard Shoulder for all buses on the M8 eastbound.
Sam Greer, Regional Director for Stagecoach in Scotland, said: “This is a hugely exciting project for Scotland and we are pleased to be starting live testing on roads. This is a major step forward in our journey to launch the UK’s first full-sized autonomous bus service and will provide easy access to a brand-new bus route in the heart of East Scotland.”
Chris Gall, Group Engineering Director at busmaker Alexander Dennis Limited (ADL), said: “CAVForth helps us to explore new technologies that will make buses even safer and more efficient. As we move towards passenger services later in the year, the project will be a landmark demonstration of future technologies in transport.”
Jim Hutchinson added: “We are delighted to be leading the world’s most complex and ambitious autonomous vehicle programme. CAVForth will provide a useful service to local people as well as being a great demonstration of Fusion’s automated vehicle technology.
“On road testing is an exciting milestone in the development of autonomous commercial vehicles and we look forward to welcoming passengers onboard in a few months’ time.”
Interest in self-driving
As an indicator of growing interest in the project, satirical site Newsthump ran a story on it this week, under the headline “UK’s first self-driving bus passes ‘ignore passengers running to bus stop’ test”.
It may be mainstream now but, remember, you heard it here first.