On the outskirts of Berlin, Michael Barillre-Scholz is testing a driverless vehicle that is neither sleek nor futuristic. The machine is boxy and painted white. Its top speed barely reaches 20 mph.
The self-driving vehicle is a shuttle with room for 12 passengers. Mr Barillre-Scholz, who leads the driverless research team at Deutsche Bahn, Germany’s largest train and bus operator, and his team have been testing the vehicle around a local office park. Later this year, the partly state-owned public transit company will also begin separate trials of a similar autonomous bus on public roads in southern Germany, connecting a local train station with stops along a predetermined route.
“We want to show that autonomous cars don’t have to be limited to luxury consumer vehicles, they also have a role in public transport,” Mr Barillre-Scholz said. “The market in Germany for this type of vehicle is huge.”
The coming age of driverless cars has typically centred on Silicon Valley highfliers like Tesla, Uber and Google, which have showcased their autonomous driving technology in luxury sedans and SUVs costing US$100,000 (S$138,420) or more. But across Europe, fledgling driverless projects like those by Deutsche Bahn are instead focused on utilitarian self-driving vehicles for mass transit that barely exceed walking pace.
Forgoing the latest automotive trends of aerodynamics and style, European transportation groups and city planners are instead aiming to connect these unglamorous driverless vehicles to existing public transportation networks of subways and buses. The goal is to eventually offer on-demand driverless services to those who cannot afford the latest expensive offerings from Tesla and others.
“When it comes to public transportation, we’re really close on making this technology work,” said Harri Santamala, who coordinates several projects involving autonomous public transport in Finland and directs a “smart mobility” program at Helsinki Metropolia University of Applied Sciences.
While US cities - including Ann Arbor, Michigan, and Las Vegas - have tested some of these mass transit driverless vehicles, Europe is a particular hotbed of this activity. That is because of the region’s densely packed urban areas and decades-old and widely used public transit systems, which often include subways, trains and buses.
In total, more than 20 pilot or existing public transport programs have taken place in Europe involving autonomous vehicles, according to a review by The New York Times. Most of these projects have received government funding, tapping into local research institutions and tech startups that are not household names.
“Most of our shuttles have been to more places than I have,” said Lauren Isaac, director of business initiatives for North America at Easymile, a French autonomous transit company that is working on driverless shuttles.
For those who dream of owning a sleek driverless vehicle of the future, this generation of autonomous public shuttles - often half the length of a traditional bus with capacity for less than a dozen people - will not set hearts racing. Though they include much of the high-tech sensors and gadgetry required for autonomous driving, the vehicles are designed for functionality rather than speed and style.
“With our first vehicle, the goal was just to get in on the road as quickly as possible,” said Christophe Sapet, chief executive of Navya, a French startup that designs autonomous shuttle buses that have carried almost 150,000 passengers across Europe, Asia and the United States. He added that Navya’s next vehicle will look “more like a robo-taxi.”
Unlike the driverless trials from Uber and Alphabet’s Waymo, which aim to bring autonomous vehicles to personal transport, a focus on self-driving public transit is a significantly easier challenge. That is because these autonomous vehicles are often limited to operating in the “last mile,” to existing public transit, or smaller distances on often well-traveled routes. That reduces the complexity required to make the machines navigate across an entire city.
In London, city planners conducted a three-week trial in April involving a self-driving electric shuttle moving slowly around a well-defined 3-mile route on mostly private roads. Nick Reed, the project’s coordinator, said that by offering people autonomous connections to the British capital’s existing transportation network, his team was helping the city to meet public demand without having to invest millions, if not billions, in traditional subways or buses.
“London is a megacity, we want people to use the public transportation that is already there,” said Mr Reed, academy director at TRL, a transit consultant firm in charge of the two-year trial in London. “If we can connect people through autonomous vehicles, it’s a big plus.”
Not all of the autonomous vehicles being tested for public transport in Europe are glamour-free.
In December, Carlo Ratti, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, stood on the banks of a picturesque canal in Amsterdam to test his team’s latest contraption: a driverless boat.
The machine - painted bright orange and measuring less than 2 feet in length - darted swiftly between parked boats and a flock of ducks. Called the Roboat, the initial prototype was remote-controlled. Later versions are set to incorporate sensors and other technology to make the boat fully autonomous. The machines will eventually reach up to 16 feet in length.
Mr Ratti’s goal is to bring a fleet of these driverless boats to the Dutch city by the end of the decade, where they will be used to ferry people and goods around Amsterdam’s miles of canals. If everything goes according to plan, the researcher also hopes the autonomous boats will be able to automatically dock with each other, creating on-demand bridges and walkways whenever necessary.
“There are rivers and waterfronts in most cities, so the applications are quite wide,” said Mr Ratti, whose team is split between Amsterdam and Boston, where they use a university swimming pool to try out their latest version of the Roboat. “Not many people have looked at self-driving boats.”