Self-driving vehicles are headline news, and they got their first taste of working life following a trial of autonomous busses at Helsinki Airport.
It can be a strange feeling, stepping into a shuttle bus without a driver. But travellers were happy to give this new technology a try when they found an electric robot bus waiting for them at Helsinki Airport in October 2017.
During the month-long pilot, commissioned by Finland’s national airport operator Finavia, the nine-seater bus shuttled a few hundred passengers between the airport terminals and its long-term parking.
“Airports have large surface areas, a lot of people moving around and a high demand for last mile types of services. So they are great places to test new mobility solutions,” explains Oscar Nissin, project manager of autonomous driving projects at Metropolia University of Applied Sciences, which ran the pilot.
The robot bus trial was organised to gain experience on how autonomous vehicles could be used in real-world airport environments. In particular, Finavia was interested to see how the technology could assist in the transportation of growing numbers of passengers travelling through Helsinki Airport.
According to Nissin, the results were encouraging. The robot bus fared well even when its capabilities were put to the test in challenging winter weather conditions.
“Two large storms hit Helsinki during the pilot and there was snow and ice. This caused some issues, but mostly just with storing the bus,” Nissin says.
Finavia and Metropolia were brought together for the robot bus pilot with the help of City of Vantaa and Helsinki Business Hub (HBH). HBH has previously worked with Metropolia to find partners for its autonomous driving projects. After hearing about Finavia’s potential interest in driverless shuttle busses, HBH and the City of Vantaa arranged for the two to meet and facilitated the first discussions about the joint pilot.
Whether the pilot will eventually turn into a permanent service remains to be seen, but it has given valuable insight both to Finavia and Metropolia.
“We will use it as a case example and as part of our service design research,” Nissin says. “We aren’t exploring driving in the airport environment alone, but what kind of services could be offered with the robot busses and how problems related to traffic arrangements, storage and other practicalities could be solved.”
For Finavia, the robot bus pilot is part of its broader efforts to test the opportunities of new technologies for the airport of the future. Electric busses also tie in with the company’s environmental goals of creating energy efficient, low emission airports.
Finland on a high gear
The data gained from the Helsinki Airport trial will not be used in isolation. Another beneficiary is Finnish cities’ collaborative autonomous driving project ‘Sohjoa’. It aims to put the country into the fast lane of road transport automation.
Sohjoa was launched in summer 2016 with the trial of self-driving last-mile busses on the streets of Helsinki. The project has since expanded its robot bus experiments to other Finnish cities and the busses from French company Easymile were also used in the Helsinki Airport pilot.
Nissin stresses Finland is already one of the frontrunners globally when it comes to real-world experiments and autonomous driving knowhow. While fully-automated traffic is long way down the road, in restricted areas (such as airports) commercial robot bus routes could be a reality much sooner.
“If we think about making a closed ‘corridor’ system, then that isn’t far away. In theory, the necessary technology already exists but but remote control systems required further advancement,” Nissin says. “In a few years the situation will be very different.”