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The Future of Mass Transit: Driverless Buses on the Way

Photo by Maurits Vink on Wikimedia Commons / CC0 1.0.
Photo by Maurits Vink on Wikimedia Commons / CC0 1.0.

As transportation technology continues to evolve, there are many opportunities to improve the ways in which we get around our cities. Exciting new technologies are already under testing to improve public transportation— from driverless vehicles to bus rapid transit. As these new technologies and techniques mature, the nature of public transportation is sure to change. Here are some recent developments that give a pretty good picture of what awaits us.

Bus Rapid Transit

Image courtesy of Mariordo on Wikipedia.org, hosted under CC BY-SA 3.0.

Bus rapid transit is an innovative and low-cost method to improve the real-world experiences of bus riders. These systems offer cities many of the benefits of rail-based transit systems at a fraction of the expense. Bus trips on a BRT system are faster, less stressful and more convenient than traditional bus rides.

Several key features differentiate a BRT system from a traditional bus system:

  • Bus-only lanes to reduce the impact of local congestion on travel times.
  • Bus lanes are located in the center of the street to eliminate delays from parked or turning cars.
  • Boarding and fare payment occur at designated stations, eliminating delays caused by passengers paying their fares.
  • Cars are prohibited from turning across bus lanes, further eliminating delays and the impact of congestion on bus transit times.
  • Boarding stations are level with the entrance doors of the buses, improving the efficiency of boarding while improving accessibility for those with disabilities.

These five features combine to turn buses into efficient and quick transportation systems. Without the need to navigate treacherous and clogged city streets, BRT buses can be both faster and more fuel-efficient.

Driverless Buses Hit the Road

Photo by Rama on Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0 FR.
Photo by Rama on Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0 FR.

Driverless cars have become all the rage lately, and buses have gotten involved in the action too. China recently tested the world’s first driverless bus in real-world conditions. On its test route, the bus successfully navigated a 20-mile trip in the city of Zhengzhou at speeds of up to 42 mph. The vehicle changed lanes, passed other vehicles, and responded correctly to traffic lights.

China isn’t the only country to have experimented with driverless buses. Since November, Greece has been operating a small group of driverless buses in open traffic. The buses operate under severe restrictions. For example, these buses aren’t allowed to turn or go faster than 12 mph, and they come to a complete stop whenever they detect anything in their path. Switzerland is preparing for a two-year trial of autonomous buses in the town of Sion; a pair of driverless buses will take nine passengers each through several tourist routes. In addition, driverless projects are also underway in several cities throughout the world, including, Lausanne in Switzerland, Wageningen in the Netherlands and Milton Keynes in the United Kingdom.

Personal Rapid Transit: The Future is Almost Here

Photo by Skybum at English Wikipedia / CC BY 3.0.
Photo by Skybum at English Wikipedia / CC BY 3.0.

Buses and trains were a 20th century response to a 20th century problem. Personal rapid transit offers a modern take on the challenge of efficiently moving large numbers of people to their destinations without the pesky problems of widely spaced stops or sharing your space with dozens of your fellow riders. The systems offer an automated, on-demand network of personal shuttles that use computers and maglev technology to ferry passengers to their individual destinations with a minimum of fuss and waiting.

One such system is offered by skyTran, a NASA Space Act company headquartered at NASA’s Ames Research Center. This system features a network of two-person pods that travel through the city on lightweight suspended guiderails. The rails are installed above street level, helping riders avoid congestion while simultaneously reducing congestion.

The pods travel via maglev technology, allowing them to move efficiently without mechanical resistance or wear and tear. Automated control systems bring pods where they’re needed and guide them safely to their destination, allowing pods to merge in and out of active traffic seamlessly. The automated controls and advanced technologies used in the skyTran system enable speeds as high as 100 mph through city centers that are usually choked with traffic.

Driverless Vehicles Await, But Challenges Remain

Fleets of driverless vehicles represent the pinnacle of personal mass transit. Ultimately, many experts predict that driverless vehicles will largely replace today’s transportation options. Driverless vehicles will allow almost all people to easily navigate through their towns without walking or driving themselves. These vehicles also promise to free people from the tyranny of bus schedules, offering on-demand transportation when and where it’s needed.

With sufficient capacity and careful planning, autonomous vehicles could operate in cities out of centralized hubs. While at the hubs, solar power arrays could charge the electrically powered vehicles, allowing the fleet to be environmentally friendly and cheap to operate. Without the ability to be distracted by smartphones, loud passengers and text messages, driverless vehicles also offer the possibility of substantially safer roadways.

However, there are several significant challenges that developers will have to overcome before driverless vehicles can become a significant player in mass transit.

  • Driverless vehicles rely on extraordinarily accurate road maps to function properly, and most roads have not been mapped in sufficient detail for these vehicles.
  • By eliminating some of the hassles of driving, some also fear that driverless vehicles would increase car usage, with a matching increase in congestion.
  • By replacing human drivers with automated vehicles, this technology could also cause significant unemployment in the transportation industry.
  • To go completely driverless, significant advances in software development are needed. Driverless vehicles will require advanced decision-making abilities that outstrip the capabilities of traditional computer code. For example, it’s difficult for automated software to distinguish between tumbleweed and a child running across the road.
  • They also need ways to communicate with other vehicles on the road to cope with difficult situations, such as when an indicator light has failed.

In addition, driverless vehicles face several hurdles unrelated to the maturity of the technology. Legal liability is a thorny issue for driverless vehicles; in an accident caused by a driverless vehicle, for example, it’s unclear whether liability would rest with the owner of the vehicle, the company that manufactured the vehicle, or the software engineer who designed its code. In most of the United States, the law mandates that a human must be in control of a vehicle at all times, effectively making driverless vehicles illegal; new legislation will be required before widespread adoption is possible. Finally, privacy is a concern with driverless vehicles; companies can monitor all of your activity while inside of a driverless vehicle, from the music you play to the destinations you frequent.


With so many new possibilities available, the future of mass transit is due to become more personal, more convenient and more efficient.

Are there any upcoming developments that might make you more willing to use public transit?

What are your opinions on driverless vehicles?