Since 2019, Ruter has been running trials of self-driving vehicles where they are integrated as a first-last mile component of the Oslo region’s public transport services. There have been 3 trials so far (two completed and one still ongoing) with over 29,000 passengers and 33,000 kilometers driven. The next trial is about to begin in winter 2021 and will involve a thoroughly Nordic collaboration with Holo and Sensible 4. Toyota is also a partner and will be providing Toyota Proaces as the test vehicles for the one-year trial.
This trial will be the first to start operations in winter, in a country noted for its tough climatic conditions. In fact, the town the trial will be conducted in is even called Ski – although it is in fact one of the southernmost towns in Norway. This is one of the reasons that Finnish self-driving company Sensible 4, who won the prize in the startup category at the Dubai World Challenge for Self-Driving Transport last year, were selected to provide the autonomous capabilities. Sensible 4 specializes in developing full-stack self-driving for all weather conditions, including snowfall and fog, that can be put onto any vehicle. But they also have their sights set much further afield.
“Bad weather is one of the biggest challenges for autonomous vehicles. Our strength is to cope with varying weather conditions and if the software works in difficult Finnish conditions, it will work also in sunny California”, says Tommi Rimpiläinen, the chief operating officer of Sensible 4.
The route will be created between the residential area Hebekk and Ski station, with the aim of investigating the reducing effect such a service can have on private car use in the area. The offer will initially be operated with two vehicles. The vehicles will follow a fixed route initially with the goal of transitioning to a flexible booking service - so that the passengers can decide for themselves when and where they want to be picked up.
The vehicles will accommodate 4-6 passengers with one of them equipped with a wheelchair ramp. Each vehicle will have a safety driver. The maximum speed the vehicles will operate at is 30 km/h, which matches the speed limit along most of the route with the exception of some sections where the speed limit is 50 km/h. This will be the first Ruter trial where the self-driving vehicles are allowed to travel at 30 km/h, with all three of its previous trials being restricted to under 18 km/h.
Ruter’s commitment to being an early adopter in the autonomous space is admirable. Not only are they providing a testbed for the technology, but they are doing so in a way that allows them to test how autonomous vehicles could be integrated into a transport framework that prioritizes public transit. In Ruter’s own words describing why they are doing this:
“Ruter believes self-driving vehicles will play a vital part in the future of mobility. It is our intention to stay on top of technological developments in this area and take advantage of new opportunities as they arise… We intend to develop our own expertise in self-driving technology and prepare our partners, owners, and national authorities for the emergence of autonomous transport solutions.”
I think this indicates that Ruter is approaching these projects primarily as a way to build internal expertise about the opportunities and limitations of autonomous vehicles, rather than because they are actively trying to bring it about themselves with their project partners. This will ensure that when the Waymos and Teslas come knocking one day, Ruter won’t be easily blindsided by their Silicon Valley promises and will be in a better position to advocate for a public-transit first agenda.
Sensible 4, which raised 7 million US dollars earlier this year, being chosen to provide the self-driving technology in this trial is also a reminder that even while self-driving companies valued at billions of dollars are in the process of swallowing each other up, there are still promising startups tackling this moon-shot.
Written by Bobby Chen, RISE Viktoria.