Self-driving, robot buses can get you to the beach in Helsinki

In an effort to increase the popularity and efficiency of public transportation, Helsinki is testing self-driving, robot buses.

The City of Helsinki says robot buses support its goal of becoming carbon neutral by 2035. Forum Virium Helsinki photo.

In the Finnish capital city of Helsinki, a pilot project testing robot buses has been underway since 2016.  This year, the city is offering a self-driving bus tour in smart city district Kalasatama as well as a 2.5 km route in the most eastern district Vuosaari.

The city of 630,000 people is committed to becoming carbon neutral by 2035.  To help meet that goal, Helsinki is investing in public transportation to cut traffic congestion as well as harmful emissions.

Despite this focus on public transport, the City says proportion of the Helsinki’s traffic has remained almost the same in recent years.  So, in an effort to increase the popularity and efficiency of public transportation, the city is testing self-driving, electric mini-buses.

“The aim is to use the pilots to learn as much as possible about robot buses even in the early stages of technological development, such as how residents receive them, how they function as a part of public transportation and what they can offer to the mobility of citizens,” said Jari Honkonen, Project manager at the City of Helsinki’s innovation company Forum Virium Helsinki.

As part of its commitment, the city will act as a testbed and to promote new mobility technologies, including automated demand-driven shuttle buses. The City says that by offering residents an emission-free transportation option, robot buses support Helsinki’s goals of carbon neutrality.

“If the robot bus technology develops as expected, they can develop public transportation in a more cost-efficient direction and enhance service levels by expanding its coverage to areas where the lines do not currently reach, making departures more frequent and public transportation more reachable,” said Honkonen.

Helsinki is working as an active test platform for pilots of smart traffic solutions, and the City’s strategy also aims to promote smart modes of transport. As a result, Helsinki is now a world-class test city for robot buses, where increasingly challenging pilot projects are underway.

Two robot bus lines are operating in Helsinki this year.  Bus number 26R in Kalasatama started in May and will operate until November and bus number 90R, which started its route recently in June, will take passengers from near the Vuosaari metro station to the Aurinkolahti beach until September.

The robot buses navigates through regular traffic and the ride is free of charge to passengers.

Next year, the international robot bus program FABULOS will bring self-driving buses to a number of streets in different EU cities.  The robot buses will not have a steward on board and will be remotely operated from a control room.

“All these different pilots are part of an ongoing process in which new technologies are gradually tested in increasingly challenging environments and the lessons learned are transferred from one project to another,” Project manager Ulla Tikkanen from Forum Virium Helsinki said.

To facilitate Helsinki’s program, major stakeholders are working together, including Metropolia University of Applied Sciences, the Helsinki city transportation planning division, the Helsinki Regional Transport Authority and, importantly, the Finnish Transport and Communications Agency Traficom.  EU funding has also been an important factor in the testing of robot buses.

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