Bus and Coach Features & Interviews TNB News

Feature: How a pop-up bus company could make the first autonomous coach trip

24 August 2017 #Bus and Coach #Features & Interviews #TNB News

If you’ve never heard of it, a pop-up bus route is designed to fill the gaps where there’s a demand for travel but poor or non-existent public transport.  

It’s a relatively new, digital-age idea, which uses big data to work out where existing transport is lacking. Once a sore spot has been identified, and there’s sufficient demand, the pop-up route appears, and users typically book their journeys online. 

Though it’s still in its infancy, companies such as Citymapper and, in the US, Bridj, have begun variations of the concept. Zeelo, which launched in December 2016, is among the new-age firms offering such a service in the UK, and it has already received $450,000 (around £350,000) in pre-seed investment from British car manufacturer Jaguar Land Rover and Liam Griffin, former CEO of London private-hire firm Addison Lee, among others. Co-founder Barney Williams explains how it works.  

“We have an algorithm that pools various different data sources – like social data, certain fuel search data, personal bases of fans – then overlays the public transport options, and will tell us what routes score highly in terms of being faster to drive directly and priced equally competitively.  

“We’ve also teamed up with a few companies that actually track people’s locations to from venues based on using their mobile phone signal, [which] allows us to understand where people are actually travelling.”   

The company focuses predominantly on large, sporting events – it has a partnership with Manchester City Football Club – but plans to broaden its remit to the likes of airport routes.  

“Right now, we’re focusing on events and we’ve had a relatively successful run with football clubs,” adds Williams, “everyone says football travel and you think away games, but actually what we’re doing is focusing on home games. 

“For example, Tottenham fans are going to Wembley next season, because that’s [the club’s new, temporary] ground. Our data sources have highlighted key areas from Hertfordshire where Tottenham fans live; their current journey into Wembley is a train into Liverpool Street, then a tube across to Euston and then a tube out. So it takes about an hour and a half and costs you £22 for the privilege. Whereas if we got a shared coach straight down to the ground, it’s going to cost you far less and certainly take less time.” 

Users reserve their trip via Zeelo’s website, which Williams likes to ticketing site Stubhub, because you book by event, and pick-up locations are predetermined by the firm’s data analysis – i.e. they should be relatively local to the passengers. Tickets are then sent to the customer’s phone and they can also track the vehicle via their phone on the day, as you would with apps such as Uber.  

The firm favours uses coaches rather than buses and operates a partnership model, whereby it can call upon operators in a particular area to provide the transport itself.   

“We’ve got a network of 20,000 coaches across the UK,” adds Williams, “we basically make a lot of partnerships with coach companies who will be able to deliver our kind of service. We effectively hire them in the background, then sell seats on those vehicles at the front end. It’s normally private-hire coach operators, not necessarily large bus companies, so we tend to have [vehicles with] leather seats, air con, some have wifi, toilets etc. We’re trying to make the standards slightly higher than what you’d class as a normal bus.” 

As well as filling the gaps in the public transport network, Zeelo intends to operate the UK’s first autonomous coach trip. Williams believes there’s been a lot of attention on driverless vehicles in cities, but scant interest in the longer distance applications, which is where he thinks coaches could make a mark.  

“There is massive focus on autonomous travel within cities, but what isn’t being pursued at the moment – and we think this is an opportunity for us – is the kind of long distance, point A to point B, autonomous option. What happens between Manchester and London, for example, or between London and Liverpool?”  

He thinks that driverless pods, the types of which have been operated at Heathrow airport and in the Greenwich GATEway project, are likely to play a bigger role in future urban transportation, leaving autonomous coaches to serve the motorways. 

“We think that in five to 10 years, autonomous vehicles within cities will probably be quite a big thing. How that spirals out into autonomous long-distance vehicles [has yet to be established], so all of that is kind of up for grabs. 

“It’s hard to say [when it will happen] but we’re going to be at the forefront of it. We have a separate project going, which is exploring the markets and understanding what people around the country are doing in terms of long-distance autonomous vehicles, and we hope that will grow into a big part of our business.” 

Williams acknowledges that the technology has some way to go before a long-distance coach trip becomes viable: “There are trials of short-distance [driverless] vehicles; there are trials for autonomous buses that [can cover similar routes to] the kind of traditional London bus, for example – they work within a city but wouldn’t necessarily be able to travel a long distance. They don’t run for passengers yet, but there are various tests going on in Paris, Leon, also in Greenwich and Milton Keynes as well, covering the actual coach the longer distance city aspects.  

“We haven’t come up with anyone quite yet who’s actually introducing autonomous passenger vehicles for long-distance routes, but we have heard of, and we are trying to speak to, people who are looking at those types of journeys. It’s definitely being talked about, but there’s not much action right now.”

Filter News

Update Newsletter