The Future of European Transit: Driverless and Utilitarian

On the outskirts of Berlin, Michael Barillère-Scholz is testing a driverless vehicle that is neither sleek nor futuristic. The machine is boxy and painted white. Its top speed barely reaches 20 miles per hour.

The self-driving vehicle is a shuttle with room for 12 passengers. Mr. Barillère-Scholz, who leads the driverless research team at Deutsche Bahn, Germany’s largest train and bus operator, and his team have been testing the vehicle around a local office park. Later this year, the partly state-owned public transit company will also begin separate trials of a similar autonomous bus on public roads in southern Germany, connecting a local train station with stops along a predetermined route.

“We want to show that autonomous cars don’t have to be limited to luxury consumer vehicles, they also have a role in public transport,” Mr. Barillère-Scholz said. “The market in Germany for this type of vehicle is huge.”

The coming age of driverless cars has typically centered on Silicon Valley highfliers like Tesla, Uber and Google, which have showcased their autonomous driving technology in luxury sedans and sport utility vehicles costing $100,000 or more. But across Europe, fledgling driverless projects like those by Deutsche Bahn are instead focused on utilitarian self-driving vehicles for mass transit that barely exceed walking pace.

Forgoing the latest automotive trends of aerodynamics and style, European transportation groups and city planners are instead aiming to connect these unglamorous driverless vehicles to existing public transportation networks of subways and buses. The goal is to eventually offer on-demand driverless services to those who cannot afford the latest expensive offerings from Tesla and others.

“When it comes to public transportation, we’re really close on making this technology work,” said Harri Santamala, who coordinates several projects involving autonomous public transport in Finland and directs a “smart mobility” program at Helsinki Metropolia University of Applied Sciences.

While cities in the United States — including Ann Arbor, Mich., and Las Vegas — have tested some of these mass transit driverless vehicles, Europe is a particular hotbed of this activity. That is because of the region’s densely packed urban areas and decades-old and widely used public transit systems, which often include subways, trains and buses.

In total, more than 20 pilot or existing public transport programs have taken place in Europe involving autonomous vehicles, according to a review by The New York Times. Most of these projects have received government funding, tapping into local research institutions and tech start-ups that are not household names.


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“Most of our shuttles have been to more places than I have,” said Lauren Isaac, director of business initiatives for North America at Easymile, a French autonomous transit company that is working on driverless shuttles.

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