I wanted to write this post in the detached style of a serious journalist, describing today’s experience in a calm manner, without excessive hyperbole, and painting a thought-provoking vision of the future which invited my readers to join me in discussion. But I can’t. I’m too excited.
Because I just rode on a fucking ROBOT BUS.
“How is that possible?” you ask. “Driverless buses are something from the fevered imaginings of science fiction, not something you’d find in sleepy old Perth.”
Well, you’d be wrong. The robots are already among us.
RAC is currently trialling a fully driverless, electric shuttle bus along the South Perth foreshore. The RAC Intellibus is one of the first driverless vehicle trial in the world (and the first in Australia). Starting at Sir James Mitchell Park, it heads along the foreshore to the Old Mill, where it loops around and heads back again – a small journey for a bus, but a giant leap for buskind.
I had the strongest sense of science-fictionality as we approached the bus. It looked like something from the future, all curves and gleaming lights, with a little LIDAR installation peeking out of the roof. Inside the bus, seats were arranged around the spacious interior; everything was white and clean, techno-utopian. I almost expected to see Isaac Asimov and Gene Roddenberry sitting there, patting the seat next to them.
Instead of two dead science fiction writers, our guide was Andy from RAC, who spent the ride explaining the technology behind the vehicle and the potential for further development. The bus drew a lot of attention as we drove along the foreshore. Other drivers were peering at us in wonder and confusion (I’m not making this up, I swear), and a lot of pedestrians did comical double-takes as they noticed the lack of driver. I have never felt so smug in my entire life as I waved jauntily through the window.
The science behind the Intellibus is pretty cool. The bus uses a combination of sensors to read the environment and navigate its route. It employs LIDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) to measure distance and map the environment. Cameras mounted at the front of the vehicle can “read” street signs and traffic lights, while the GPS keeps track of the vehicle’s location at all times. An autonomous emergency braking system can stop the vehicle if it detects that a collision is imminent.
Photo credit to the RAC Intellibus.
The combination of sensors was great at detecting obstacles. At one point, a cyclist overtook the bus and swerved in front of us (good one, dickhead), and the bus slowed dramatically. Andy assured us that the emergency braking system has a faster reaction time than human drivers. The roof-mounted LIDAR was particularly sensitive – as we approached some low-hanging palm leaves that were waving in the strong wind, the LIDAR interpreted this as a danger and slowed the bus. Little bugs like this will undoubtedly be improved in future updates – part of the purpose of this trial is to find out how the vehicle reacts to conditions on the road.
There were quite a few safety features in place for the trial. The bus didn’t exceed speeds of 14km/hour during our ride, although it is capable of reaching 45km/hour. When we reached the Old Mill, a traffic warden was standing on the side of the road, holding a sign that temporarily stopped traffic as the bus made a turn. Although this wasn’t strictly necessary, the vehicle was a little slow in completing the turn, and it was conceivable that an impatient driver stuck behind us could decide to overtake at the wrong moment. In addition to our guide, the bus had a back-up driver aboard. If the bus got into a situation where it needed to switch to manual control, Dave could drive the bus with an Xbox controller. Here is an actual photo of my reaction when I noticed the Xbox controller…
So why is RAC experimenting with this technology? The trial is designed to test the technology in a real-life environment and prepare Western Australia for the transition to driverless vehicles. In WA, the Road Traffic Act recognises that a (human) driver is in charge of the vehicle, and laws exist to ensure that the driver acts responsibly. As we transition to driverless vehicles, this sort of legislation will need to be updated. The trial is also a good way to gauge the public’s reaction to the concept of driverless vehicles. Perth is sometimes frustratingly conservative when it comes to embracing change, so it’s good to know RAC is helping us get ahead of the rest of Australia.
Driverless vehicles herald a enormous paradigm shift in the way we use cars. In a future where the road is dominated by driverless cars, vehicle ownership could decrease significantly. People may be able to timeshare cars with other households, or summon vehicles through an Uber-style system. Traffic congestion could be a thing of the past. It could also save lives – 90% of traffic accidents are caused by human error.
But there are also dangers in this future. Could the cars be remotely hacked? What if the system crashes? What if robot cars gain sentience and kill their human masters? These are the sort of questions that the trial hopes to address. (Well, probably not that last question.)
The entire experience felt like a brief glimpse into the future. It wasn’t just the space-age feel of the vehicle, but the overwhelming sense that these technologies are under development. Driverless cars have been a staple of science fiction for a long time; it was great to be part of that vision, to know that the Intellibus trial along the foreshore is shaping the future of transportation technology.
I’d like to give a big shout out to Andy and Dave, our chaperones from RAC, who were informative, interesting, and hilarious. RAC is doing some amazing things for WA roads. And a special thanks to my wonderful partner Samantha, who put our names down for the trial and is always great at organising things when my brain is like “SCIENCE FICTION ROBOT BUS TIME!”
More information about the RAC Intellibus, as well as booking information, can be found here. The future is now, people!!