Mercedes-Benz Future BusPeople are moving toward the urban cores of our cities in record numbers. And while cities are pushing inward, it’s becoming harder than ever to have a car—or multiple cars—in a household. Meanwhile, new subways and rail lines require deep pockets and often controversial funding sources. The solution, as some see it, is the automated (or semi-automated) city bus. A bus ticket is hardly an aspirational purchase for middle-class American consumers, yet two aspirational brands—Mercedes-Benz and Tesla—both recently mentioned bus projects intended to address the urban mass-transit dilemma.
It makes sense. Moving people on buses networked with the traffic signals might ease gridlock without making other (far costlier) changes such as building new subways or light-rail lines, or adding politically loaded policies like urban-area tolling for private vehicles. According to the Union Internationale des Transports Publica (UITP), an international organization for transport authorities and operators, a single, large articulated bus could replace 40 personal vehicles and take up just one-eighth of the road space.
The Mercedes-Benz Future Bus, a semi-automated city bus with a technology suite called CityPilot, is a front-runner in this field. It can journey up to 12.4 miles (20 km) without a need for the driver to touch the steering, accelerator, or brake pedal. With a dozen cameras plus long- and short-range radar systems monitoring the route ahead, the Future Bus can spot obstacles and pedestrians, follow lane markings, and function as part of a new Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system, employing networked data about traffic and signals along the route.
That Mercedes-Benz system requires a driver on board (a press of a button puts it in semi-automated mode). It’s also fully functioning today, and being tested on a route in the Netherlands, to Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport. Meanwhile, looking many more years into the future, Tesla recently announced a plan that sounds, in some respects, complementary to solutions like the Future Bus.
Tesla Sees Future for Smaller Semi-Autonomous Buses
Over the long term, Tesla says it intends not only to enter the bus business, but to produce a pilotless bus. As part of the much-discussed Tesla Master Plan Part Deux for the company to expand and “cover the major forms of terrestrial transport,” CEO Elon Musk said: “In addition to consumer vehicles, there are two other types of electric vehicles needed: heavy-duty trucks and high passenger-density urban transport.”
Musk suggested that a fleet of smaller semi-autonomous buses could transition the role of the bus driver to that of a fleet manager. In the Tesla scenario, you’d arrange to ride these buses via a cellphone app, although Musk also suggested placing fixed summon buttons at existing bus stops.
Tesla says its bus design would have car-like performance, so as not to impede traffic flow, and would include a flexible seating layout that could accommodate wheelchairs, strollers, and bicycles.
The Mercedes-Benz Future Bus, as it stands, is diesel-powered, but the company has announced an all-electric propulsion system for its buses on the way for 2018; that should beat Tesla by many years. Would getting the Tesla name, or Mercedes-Benz’s active-safety reputation, into city buses make Americans more likely to ride them? It’s too early to say, but with these two names involved, the future of public transit now looks not only safer but a little more glamorous.