Volvo goes big, puts autonomous driving tech into a full-size bus

It seems increasingly likely that shuttles will become the first widespread, real-world application of level-five autonomous vehicles, with the boxy people-carriers transporting passengers along pre-determined routes.

Indeed, a number of companies have spent the last few years testing autonomous shuttle buses as they work to improve and refine the technology.

Researchers at Nanyang Technological University (NTU) in Singapore have approached the subject a little differently, deciding to incorporate self-driving smarts into a full-size bus rather than a small shuttle.

Working with Volvo, NTU claims that the 12-meter long, 80-person vehicle is the world’s first full-size, autonomous electric bus.

The project is part of a plan to develop and conduct autonomous bus trials for fixed routes and scheduled services in Singapore. The government has been encouraging the testing of such technology in the hope of one day persuading more citizens to ditch their cars for public transit in the densely populated city state.

The Volvo 7900 electric bus is kitted out with light detection and ranging sensors (lidars), stereo-vision cameras that capture images in 3D, and an advanced global navigation satellite system that uses multiple data sources to give pinpoint location accuracy to the nearest centimeter.

Notably, NTU says the bus incorporates an artificial intelligence system that’s “protected with industry-leading cybersecurity measures to prevent unwanted cyber intrusions,” because the last thing you want is for a hacker to take control of a massive bus.

The Volvo vehicle is the first of two buses to be put through its paces at Singapore’s Centre of Excellence for Testing and Research of Autonomous vehicles at NTU (CETRAN). The center includes a custom-built track featuring typical street fixtures such as traffic signals, bus stops, and pedestrian crossings.

CETRAN can also re-create harsh weather conditions such as heavy rain and partially flooded roads, both of which pose serious challenges for autonomous vehicle technology.

The other autonomous Volvo bus is scheduled to undergo tests at a working bus depot in Singapore where it will autonomously navigate into vehicle washing bays and charging areas.

Commenting on the project, NTU President and Professor Subra Suresh said: “This fully autonomous electric bus will play a role in shaping the future of public transportation that is safe, efficient, reliable, and comfortable for all commuters.”

Håkan Agnevall, president of Volvo Buses, said the collaboration represented “a key milestone for the industry and is an important step toward our vision for a cleaner, safer, and smarter city,” though he acknowledged that the journey toward full autonomy “is undoubtedly a complex one.”

While the Singapore team claims that the Volvo vehicle is the first full-size, autonomous electric bus ever to hit the road, it’s actually not the first time we’ve seen driverless technology incorporated into a vehicle of this size. In 2015, for example, a company working with the Chinese Academy of Engineering successfully tested a (non-electric?) driverless bus on regular roads, with a video showing it changing lanes, overtaking other vehicles, and responding to lights.

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