While the bus sector has led the way in decarbonising UK road transport for some time, the launch of one of the world’s most ambitious and complex automated bus trials in Scotland this month has also put it at the frontier of self-driving innovation.
The CAVForth project has brought five Alexander Dennis Enviro200AV automated buses – derived from the manufacturer’s standard low-emission Enviro200 single decker – to public roads via a scheduled passenger service on Stagecoach’s new AB1 route.
The service links Fife’s Ferrytoll Park & Ride with the Edinburgh Park interchange every 30 minutes, seven days a week, with the 14-mile route crossing the Forth Road Bridge and features A-roads, motorways, bus lanes and private land.
The buses are travelling in mixed traffic up to 50mph, handling a range of complex traffic manoeuvres such as roundabouts, traffic lights and motorway lane changes.
It has the capacity to carry up to 10,000 passengers per week.
The project is led by Fusion Processing in collaboration with Stagecoach, Transport Scotland, Alexander Dennis, Edinburgh Napier University and Bristol Robotics Laboratory, showcasing Britain’s world-leading skills and collaboration in the latest vehicle technology.
“Our participation in this exciting project is testament to the great expertise of our engineering team, who continue to lead technology development for tomorrow’s mobility, and the technology leadership of British bus manufacturing,” said Paul Davies, President & Managing Director at Alexander Dennis.
“We look forward to gaining further experience through CAVForth and continuing to develop this promising technology so that it can benefit our customers and open international opportunities for us.”
CAVForth follows a trial in 2018 between Alexander Dennis, Fusion Processing and Stagecoach in which a prototype bus drove itself around a depot to get fuel, go through a bus wash and park itself up at night – all at the touch of a button.
During extensive testing prior to the launch, the automated driving system of the CAVForth vehicles covered more than one million miles.
Jim Hutchinson, Fusion Processing CEO, said: “CAVForth is an exciting showcase of how our CAVstar Automated Drive System can safely operate in a very complex driving environment.
“This pilot is globally significant and marks a step change in the operation of autonomous commercial vehicles on public roads.”
Initially, more than 90% of the route will be covered in automated mode, with the remaining short sections under manual control as part of a controlled ramp-up of automated driving.
As part of the trial, a safety driver must be present at all times to comply with legislation, while a second member of staff is on-board to demonstrate what an automated service could feel like when a single bus ‘captain’ leaves the cab and the computer does the driving.
“Automation offers an opportunity to transform the ways we get around in years to come, while improving safety and reducing energy consumption,” said Professor Nick Antonopoulos, Deputy Vice Chancellor and Vice Principal of Research & Innovation at Edinburgh Napier University.
“As this trial gets underway, we look forward to contributing Edinburgh Napier University’s transport research expertise to understand more about the passenger experience on the AB1 service.”
The new AB1 service provides the first direct public transport link between Fife and the business parks and retail outlets at Edinburgh Park, with Stagecoach charging normal bus fares for the journey.
Ray O’Toole, Executive Chairman for Stagecoach, which has recruited 20 automated bus professionals from its East Scotland team to work on the project, said: “We are proud to be at the forefront of transport innovation with this project, marking a significant milestone for public transport.”
Fusion Processing was founded in 2012 to design and build advanced automated systems for the purpose of improving vehicle safety.
The buses in the trial use Fusion Processing’s automated drive system CAVStar, a full level four-capable automated drive system that can be integrated into different bus models.
It utilises data from a suite of sensors including cameras, LiDAR and radar together with artificial intelligence processing.
In addition, receiving information directly from traffic light systems enables the bus to plan its speed to run smoothly from one green light to the next.
This intelligent autonomous driving reduces unnecessary braking and accelerating, contributing to less wear on brakes and tyres, with corresponding reductions in particulate emissions.
Other innovations from the company include CycleEyeCMS, a mirror replacement system for buses and trucks, designed and developed inhouse at its headquarters in Bristol.
Like many Stagecoach vehicles, the CAVForth buses are fitted with seatbelts, and while passengers are encouraged to wear them in line with safety guidance, project partners do not expect them to be any more necessary than on a manually driven bus.
Anthony Pipe, Professor of Robotics and Autonomous Systems at the Bristol Robotics Laboratory, said: “The short-term benefits of vehicle autonomy in providing safer and more energy efficient travel will be illustrated by this project and, in the longer term, we believe that it will contribute significantly to transformations in the way we achieve mobility in our society.”
There are more stops to come: CAVForth2 is due to launch in 2024, extending the route to Dunfermline city centre via an Alexander Dennis Enviro100AEV automated bus.
The new AB1 route is co-funded by the UK government’s Centre for Connected and Autonomous Vehicles until 2025, when the continuation of the service will be decided.
Scotland’s Minister for Transport, Kevin Stewart, said: “We want Scotland to continue to be at the forefront in the development of connected and autonomous vehicles, and the start of this live trial will really help the country to establish its credentials on the world stage.
“I am excited to see how this technology can help to support our vision for a sustainable, inclusive, safe and accessible transport system.”
The pilot represents an important step in showing how automated vehicle systems can transform the UK’s public transport system, refresh public perceptions of the bus sector as truly innovative, and provide safer and more energy efficient travel.