In what is a first for Switzerland’s public transport system, two new autonomous buses sporting PostBus’s distinctive yellow livery will be put in service in Sion during a two-year test period from spring 2016.
The electric-powered vehicles will be able to carry nine passengers at a time and will be in service in tourist zones in Sion’s Old Town.
Installed with technology developed by Lausanne-based start-up BestMile, the distinctive vehicles will be able to navigate roads accurately, identify obstacles and read road signs.
The project is the first commercial contract for BestMile, a company formed in January 2014 by two EPFL graduates, Anne Koymans and Raphaël Gindrat.
It’s the result of a two-year joint research project conducted by BestMile and EPFL to develop the mathematical algorithms that allow driverless vehicles to deal with different scenarios on the road and be operated remotely.
In a statement, BestMile said its technology “offers a solution to control fleets of autonomous vehicles in the same way a control tower does in an airport”.
Following a six-month testing period at EPFL, the company is working with Nayva, a French specialist in sustainable mobility, to install its technology in two Navya Arma shuttles that will roam Sion.
Speaking to The Local, BestMile co-founder Koymans said it was “really exciting” that the startup had its first customer and was already in discussions with other potential customers.
“We have already participated in two big European projects but this is the first time a customer will use our platform,” she said.
“There is a lot of interest for driverless mobility solutions, partly thanks to Google,” she added.
“Cities are interested but also public transport operators and the interest is increasing.”
However unlike tech-giant Google, which is developing driverless cars for private use, BestMile is focusing on public transport and what Koyman terms “the last mile issue”, meaning using driverless vehicles to bridge the gap between the last stop of public transport and the final destination of the user.
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“These are two different approaches that can be complementary,” said Koymans.
It remains to be seen how the development of driverless buses will impact on Switzerland, but Valerie Gerl, spokeswoman for PostAuto, said drivers will not be out of a job.
“We will always need drivers,” she told newspaper Tribune de Geneve.
“The goal is not to put these buses on existing lines: we want to see if this system will be appropriate to link places which aren’t currently served by public transport.”