By improving public transport efficiency, accessibility and sustainability, this technology may hold the key to tomorrow’s car-light cities.

On the way to meet some friends on a typical afternoon, you whip out your phone and call up an app. Within minutes of entering some details, an ‘autonomous bus’ picks you up and you arrive at your destination with convenience and in comfort.

This vision of easily-accessible mobility is within grasp, thanks to the developing capabilities of autonomous vehicles (AVs) that are currently being tested and refined.

While driverless cars are often in the limelight, plans for shared autonomous shuttles and buses are less well-known. However, the technology is fast gaining traction, with more trials planned to ensure they are city-ready and effective in overcoming transportation challenges. This is due to the higher passenger capacity of shared autonomous transport, which can enable a more efficient and sustainable transportation model in cities.

Singapore, for example, has made shared and autonomous mobility a key part of the master plan for land transport to solve current and future urban mobility challenges. Today, mid- and full-sized autonomous bus services have already started providing revenue service for the public at the Singapore Science Park 2 and Jurong Island.

Similarly, China has passed new laws to ensure safety on its highways; South Korea has planned to test autonomous buses in the administrative hub of Sejong to increase ridership and assist those who are physically handicapped; and Japan is testing autonomous buses to help the elderly get around rural areas.

Benefits of autonomous public transport

When well-integrated into the public transport system, AVs will transform the mobility landscape and encourage more people to make the shift from private vehicles to public transport.

Here are three key benefits of autonomous buses:

  1. Enhanced connectivity
    One of the key goals of the public transportation system is to increase connectivity, including between cities and for first/last-mile commutes. It is especially important in large and dense cities, where most residents depend on public transport to get around.

    AVs can increase the frequency of public buses travelling on fixed routes. Besides plying fixed routes, AV shuttles also hold the potential for dynamic routing by offering various transport services and applications through the Autonomous Shuttles-as-a-Service (ASaaS) model.

    In areas not traditionally served by public buses, on-demand AV services can be an optimal mode of transportation to extend the reach of public transportation.

    AVs are also able to function round-the-clock, as they have low to no downtime. This helps to improve accessibility by complementing the current public transport network and enhancing the transport infrastructure connectivity of cities worldwide.
  1. Improved safety
    As AVs go through rigorous rounds of testing, and global safety standards are being set to ensure safer navigation, studies have shown that AVs are more likely to improve than worsen safety on the road. The simple reason is that AVs can greatly reduce the risks of human error, which is one of the key causes of road accidents. According to a comprehensive study on road safety, human error was the sole cause in 57% of all accidents and contributed to over 90% of these accidents.

    With AI, analytics, advanced algorithms, sensors and various AV technologies deployed to ensure stringent safety adherence during operation, AVs are more likely to reduce the number of vehicle-related injuries and accidents. The improved road safety could also lead to a more efficient and optimized land transport ecosystem with fewer congestions and disruptions caused by road accidents.
  1. Good sustainability
    Autonomous buses are likely to pave the way for more sustainable urban transportation. On-demand AV shuttles can be booked in advance or when needed. They reduce unnecessary trips carried out by fixed-route buses or buses that serve low-demand areas. The demand and supply of public transport services are better matched to optimize limited transport resources.

    With connected-vehicle technology that enables more-informed driving, autonomous shuttles could communicate with the surrounding environment through infrastructures and other vehicles for smoother driving, without frequently braking and accelerating. This can reduce carbon emissions due to unnecessary idling on the road and delays caused by traffic accidents.

    These are just some scenarios of how autonomous buses can reduce wasted bus trips and the number of private vehicles on the road, making AV buses a more environmentally-friendly transport option for cities. In the long term, this will also help cities achieve economies of scale from the shared use of infrastructure and services.

Although shared AVs do not put an end to a city’s congestion and pollution woes, they promise a more efficient transportation solution with better accessibility and greater convenience for commuters. Such systems potentially hold the key to safer roads and may eventually pave the way for a car-lite community, transforming the way we travel and live.