Paving The Way for Public Autonomous Mobility

Interesting Engineering hop on a fully autonomous, driverless, and fully electric shuttle bus at the Smart Cities and Smart Mobility Congress in Barcelona. Driverless public mobility is real.
Susan Fourtané
Smart Mobility Congress Barcelona 2018/Susan Fourtané for Interesting Engineering 

Autonomous mobility solutions and connected vehicles have already a presence in big cities around the world. Pilot tests have been well underway for a few years now.

Car manufacturers such as Tesla, BMW, Volvo, Google, and many others are competing in the race toward Level 5 autonomous driving with Level 4 autonomous cars scheduled to be seen in the streets in China as soon as 2021.

In the recent Smart Mobility Congress 2018 in Barcelona, Spain industry leaders from all over the world gathered to discuss and share advancements in global projects toward the future of autonomous mobility in smart cities, where 9.5 billion people are going to live by 2050.

Within the discussion, driverless public transportation takes a front seat. It becomes clear that the future is now.

Will driverless public transport be a reality?

No doubt about it! The city of Lyon in France became the first city in the world to operate a driverless shuttle bus for public transport outside a closed, private road in 2016. The shuttle operated at the end of a tram line taking passengers on the last mile of commuting.

The trial in Lyon was a success and a proof of how first and last mile autonomous mobility can improve citizens' life in urban environments. In the United States, Las Vegas became the first North American city to allow the test of a self-driving shuttle in 2017.

Trials of self-driving vehicles for public mobility are becoming longer, more advanced, and more integrated into existing transport city networks and the urban environment. These trials allow city officials, passengers, and residents as well as shuttle makers and operators to test and verify all aspects of autonomous mobility, paving the way for seamless integration into smart cities across the world.   

First autonomous shuttle bus available on the market 

French electric shuttle manufacturer Keolis in partnership with Navya, a French designer of autonomous systems and leader in the autonomous transport market, make shuttles that can transport 15 passengers operating at a speed of 25 km/hour. 

Navya's Autonom Cab is the first robo-taxi on the market. It provides a connected, simple, and fluid user experience through a mobile application. 

Autonomous, shared, and electric mobility solutions are going to ease congestions in city centers providing a needed solution to the demand for first and last mile urban service.

Mobility as a Service (MaaS)

Shared mobility is a trend that is increasing in big cities. Mobility as a Service (MaaS) in the form of multimodal transport applications that link cities or parts of those cities and public transport networks

In London, Chariot, a Ford Motor Company initiative, offers a commuter service in areas where public transport is not easy accessible. This smart mobility solution helps passengers complete the first and last mile of their journey by quickly and efficiently connecting them with underground stations from they can reach their final destination.   

Navya, a French designer of autonomous systems, has tested its driverless autonomous electric Arma shuttle bus in England, U.K. The self-driving shuttle made its debut in no less than at the busy Heathrow airport in London showing off how the technology can be useful transporting passengers to and from the terminals, and from the terminals to the aircrafts. 

Preparing communities for autonomous mobility 

The next step is to connect the MaaS to the network adding full driverless capabilities. Just like with any other innovation and technology, people need time in order to adapt to new changes and ways of moving around the city.

Thanks to the many advantages that driverless shuttles are set to bring to cities around the world, their communities, and residents it is only a matter of time before driverless public mobility become accepted as part of the daily urban life. 

autonomous shuttle bus
Level 5 autonomous, Navya electric shuttle bus at Smart Mobility Congress 2018 in Barcelona / Image: Susan Fourtané for Interesting Engineering

Autonomous mobility: Long-term challenges

At this stage of its evolution, the development of autonomous mobility solutions has to be characterized by a continuous learning and testing process. Due to the responsibility behind this advanced technology, it is paramount for automotive manufacturers and companies behind autonomous mobility solutions to assure that every component involved in the system is free of failures.

Special attention must be paid into security and safety before driverless shuttles become a part of the everyday urban public transportation system. One of the main concerns and the long-term challenge is cybersecurity. Every new technology implies new risks. Anything connected to the network is at risk of being hacked until security experts (white hats) find the way to be a few steps forward malicious hackers (black hats). 

The United Nations Economic Commision for Europe (UNECE) through a 2016 amendment of the 1968 Vienna Convention on Road Traffic allows for autonomous driving. However, the United Nations regulations demand that a human has to always be able to control and deactivate the autonomous vehicles in case of need. In other words, there has to be a responsible human behind each autonomous unit ready to take control of the unit in case of an emergency.

The state of autonomous vehicle testing

Partial public trials are a way to get the technology ready while legislation takes time to find its way and adapt into the new driverless realm. Cities around the world have witnessed the testing and improvement of a variety of autonomous vehicles.


For instance, automaker Volvo in Sweden is going to complete its DriveMe project launched in 2014 with 100 autonomous vehicles on public roads in Gothenburg by 2020. The Netherlands is perhaps the most advanced test field for autonomous vehicles and Intelligent Transport Systems (ITS).

Five states have approved self-driving vehicles in the United States so far and legislation continues to be introduced. France has been testing driverless vehicles since 2016. The United Kingdom has £30 million available to businesses and research organizations to advance infrastructure for the development of self-driving vehicles.