While it might look like a normal bus, this one is fitted a host of sensors and systems to allow it to drive itself
While it might look like a normal bus, this one is fitted a host of sensors and systems to allow it to drive itself
Image: Supplied

We all know autonomous vehicles are coming, but much of the focus has been on cars and self-driving pods. What about public transport? We are used to being in airplanes knowing that the autopilot is in control, but what about on the ground?

UK public transport operator Stagecoach is now testing a fully autonomous bus at a depot in Manchester. It was  manufactured by Alexander Dennis, Britain's  biggest bus-building company and probably more famously known for making fire-fighting trucks.

Based on an ADL Enviro200 bus, it uses a system called CavStar made by Fusion Processing which includes a wide range of sensors such as lidar, optical cameras and ultrasound, as well as GPS navigation.

Initially it will be tested only at the depot where the autonomous driving system will pilot the bus during operations such as parking and going to the bus wash. But the plan is that in 2020 it will form part of an autonomous bus trial of five vehicles that will operate in Scotland between Fife and Edinburgh, carrying actual passengers to their destinations.

Like many other countries, including SA, the UK does not allow full Level 5 autonomous driving, where there is no need for someone to be in the driver’s seat at all or a driver does not need to have hands on the wheel or eyes on the road. Instead the buses will run at Level 4 where a safety driver must be in place to take over should there be any issues with the system.

The trials will allow the bus to drive itself but a safety driver must be on hand to meet Level 4 legislation
The trials will allow the bus to drive itself but a safety driver must be on hand to meet Level 4 legislation
Image: Supplied

“Our CavStar sensor and control system has now been successfully applied to vehicles ranging in size from two-seater electric vehicles right up to a 12m, 43-seater bus,” says Jim Hutchinson, CEO of Fusion Processing. “We anticipate further new ADAS (advanced driver assistance systems) products as spin-offs from the autonomous vehicle bus project.”

In addition to its self-driving abilities, the trial aims to test other road safety features that will be useful even when a driver is in control. These include pedestrian and cyclist detection which have already proved to be useful in trucks and are likely to be equally life-saving in buses.

Could autonomous buses come to SA? Eventually yes and currently the Mobility Centre for Africa in Johannesburg says it is planning to bring an autonomous bus to SA to showcase it and assess the viability.