French autonomous bus launched on streets of Bavaria

An autonomous minibus – the EZ10, operated by France’s Easymile – is now carrying passengers in the small town of Bad Birnbach. Deutsche Bahn intends to trial a similar vehicle in Hamburg next year.

With no steering wheel, no accelerator… and no driver, the vehicle represents the vanguard of this new bus technology and has been operating since late November in the Bavarian spa town of Bad Birnbach. Following testing at traffic-free sites in Berlin and Leipzig, Deutsche Bahn is now running its first public highway driverless bus trial in Germany. For this project, the German rail operator chose the EZ10 autonomous minibus, designed and marketed by Toulouse-based start-up EasyMile and Ligier, the French manufacturer of niche technology vehicles. “This is a huge step forward for us”, says a spokesperson for EasyMile, which has already worked with transport operators Transdev in Rungis and RATP in Paris.

The red and white autonomous bus – Deutsche Bahn’s colours – operates at 20 km/H. ©Deutsche Bahn AC/Uwe Miethe

With a maximum capacity of 12 passengers, the minibus operates at speeds up to 20 km/h and runs on a route predetermined to within a couple of centimetres using GPS. The vehicle uses laser sensors to decelerate, or potentially come to a complete standstill, if obstacles are spotted in its path. At that point, an agent – one of whom must always be on board – takes control using a joystick to bypass whatever obstacle has arisen. Deutsche Bahn’s overriding aim is to develop completely new transport solutions, and having already launched a car-sharing network and a carpooling app, above all this pilot project will provide it with grassroots experience of the extent to which passengers embrace this new technology. “We are witnessing a move towards on-demand public transport, explained a Deutsche Bahn spokesperson. With fixed timetables likely to disappear over time, the vision for the longer term is that passengers themselves will have control over pick-up times – for both driver-operated and autonomous buses – using an app that allows them to combine individual pick-ups and trips within the same area.

Second EZ10 bus to launch in spring 2018

For Deutsche Bahn – which had already worked with EasyMile on its earlier trial in Leipzig – this small Bavarian town of 5,500 inhabitants provides an easier testing ground than could be offered by a larger metropolis. The simpler traffic conditions meant less difficulty in obtaining the necessary special authorisations from Germany’s authorities, despite an application process lasting several months. This is the use of driverless vehicles on the public highway is not yet permitted under German law. However, Deutsche Bahn is aiming to develop autonomous bus technology for use in larger towns and cities. It plans to pilot a bus route using autonomous vehicles in Hamburg in 2018, although the vehicle to be used in the pilot has not yet been chosen. “We are open to submissions from all autonomous bus manufacturers”, explains Deutsche Bahn’s spokesperson, adding that the company is already working with other producers including the American firm Local Motors. In Bad Birnbach, the trial project is currently running on a 700 metre route linking the thermal baths with the town’s main square, which will be extended in spring 2018 to operate over more than two kilometres providing a link to the town’s railway station. A second EZ10 bus will be brought into service. The municipality, which campaigned hard to host the driverless bus trial, hopes that in the longer term the pilot will operate permanently for the benefit of Bad Birnbach residents and visitors.

Pauline Houédé.