Accelerating evolution of mobility in the Baltic Sea Region – Sohjoa Last Mile’s robot bus pilot experiences

Currently, public transport is funded by subsidies and rarely offers competitive options to private cars. The flexible, on-demand type of operation, and especially the gap in the last mile connectivity becomes a barrier to use public transport in many European cities. There are needs to promote the usage and support the change in the field of urban public transportation. The positive change can be achieved through implementation of automated driverless electric shuttles in the public transport chain especially for the first or last mile mobility needs.

Providing improved or additional public transport services are expensive with today’s production method, as the driver represents up 60% of the costs. Operation of vehicles without an operator or driver in the bus will therefore represent a game changer for public transport and transport operators. Moreover, there is a shortage of manpower to provide the transport service. Transport operators may face difficulties in recruiting a sufficient number of people willing to act as drivers on public transport.

The level of maturity in autonomous driving technology is the key element to successful operating, but the supportive regulatory changes regarding the EU-level legal framework and national regulations on deployment and development of autonomous public transport services are required too. The target for remote-operated fleets is the cost reduction and more flexible services for public transport. To meet public needs for transport, the service must to perform as well or even better than regular buses.

Investments on pilot projects support the future mobility goals

Investing in autonomous mobility means opting for more efficient, environmentally friendly and safer transportation as well as new on-demand mobility services. Up until 2019 there have been around a hundred autonomous shuttle pilots across Europe. They have typically been financially supported by various EU-funding instruments.

In order to support and facilitate more advanced local and national pilots, a harmonised legal framework on the EU level is essential in ensuring the development of autonomous mobility, even though the regulatory changes can start on the national level. A clear and uniform legislative framework for autonomous mobility deployment is necessary. For example in relation to approval of an automated vehicle and recognition of national permits, as today they differ in all countries.

After dozens of similar pilots, committing resources to organize another pilot of an autonomous bus with an operator on-board is no longer innovative and does not bring surprising new conclusions. The first pilots have been operated with a safety driver on-board, where human should be ready to take over the machine and drive manually if the computer programmed commands are not valid in the physical operating environment. These situations may be as simple as passing another vehicle to avoid delays in the service schedule. In this article, we describe the main lessons learned based on experiences from the three pilot sites where the goal was to learn how to operate automated shuttles without safety operators.

Long-term collaboration creates value and enables ecosystems’ growth

In 2021, the Sohjoa Last Mile project deployed three robot bus pilots, in Kongsberg (Norway), Tallinn (Estonia) and Gdansk (Poland). The aim was to study the driverless driving without operator on board. These cities had participated in the previous Sohjoa Baltic project in 2017-2020, where the project coordinator Metropolia University of Applied Sciences also deployed a robot bus pilot in Helsinki (Finland) and Latvian partner Zemgale Planning Region had deployed the first national robot bus small scale pilots in two cities.

The previous project collaboration had allowed the partners to get familiar with each other and build trust, that helped the current project to start off immediately. In Sohjoa Last Mile project, piloting aimed also to analyse the technical capabilities and risks when driving without a safety driver, human perception towards the driverless bus together with recommendations on the future language of driving, the communications network requirements for remote-control driving as well as evaluate 5G network advantages based on pilots.

A short compilation video from Sohjoa Last Mile pilot sites on Youtube, embedded below.

Video of Sohjoa Last Mile robot bus pilots 2021 on YouTube .

The pilots took place both in closed and open areas and provided information for the future remote fleet operating. As the experience, resources and local circumstances of the three sites are very different, the pilots also differed considerably. Each pilot had unique features. How they are valued, varies per case:

  • Gdansk is a city located in northern Poland, covering the area of 262 km2 with over 471,5 thousand residents and over 177,7 millions of public transport passengers per year. The municipality for the second time in a row proved to be the only actor nationwide to organise an autonomous bus pilot and probably the first worldwide to run it at the cemetery and delivered valuable experience for future procurements and implementations.
  • Kongsberg municipality is located in Buskerud region and within Viken County in Norway with population of over 27 000 residents. For the first time in Norway, the driverless operation was tested and what is more, the driverless phase included on-demand transport, to eliminate empty trips and pointless energy consumption.
  • Tallinn is the capital and largest city of Estonia, with an area of 159.2 km² and nearly 438,000 inhabitants. Taltech managed to execute driverless operation from day one, and to maximise in-house resources. However, the teleoperation software was outsourced, the local remote-control centre at the campus worked simultaneously to the one in Riga, in order to build competence at the University. What is even more interesting, certain signs for future language of driving were developed.

What dictates the pilot route choices?

The electric, automated shuttle buses are packed with technology that currently is not mature enough to all situations and environments. Therefore, deploying a pilot requires detailed planning from route selection to ensuring vehicle provider, permits, test-plates, insurances and suitable infrastructures.

For usability of the pilot, the route choice should serve the daily commuters and attract passengers, but not disturb the regular public transport routes, other road users or residents.

  • In Gdansk, the route was based on public’s opinion poll results, where a significant number of responders indicated that the good area of operation would be cemeteries, the largest one was chosen as a pilot site. The cemetery covers an area of more than 50 hectares and the demonstration route has been marked out along a section connecting the two main entrances with a length of about 1100 m.
  • In Kongsberg, the main priority in deciding on a route was its usefulness, both with respect to testing the technology and mobility solution for daily users. Vehicle provider’s main concern was safety. As operations without an operator on-board were still rather new at the time, the choice was restricted to closed areas with controlled access, outside the public road network. The only feasible option, the Kongsberg Technology Park, was chosen.
  • In Tallinn, from the very beginning, in this extension stage project the TalTech University intended to run a pilot on a campus road, that had been used for previous autonomous shuttle pilots and therefore no separate permit was needed. Route had been approved by the road administration back in 2018. The demonstration route was half a kilometre long and led through the campus to the park.

Whilst Taltech from day one operated a driverless pilot and continue he same set-up till the pilot concluded, the municipality of Kongsberg went through four phases and had to complete certain number of hours in each phase, to be able to finally operate driverless and on-demand. The City of Gdansk, allowed the service provider to carry out with an operator on-board, before they go to driverless operation, which in fact were two phases.

Table below summarises the key characteristics of the individual pilots.

Comparison of the Sohjoa Last Mile robot bus pilots 2021
VariablesPilot city
CityKongsbergTallinnGdansk
Project partnerMunicipality of KongsbergTallinn University of TechnologyCity of Gdansk
Type of locationEnclosed areaEnclosed areaEnclosed area
LocationTechnology ParkCampusCemetery
Public roadNoNoNo
Route lenght (km)1,7 > 2,40,51,1 (2,2 round trip)
No of stops10?4 (7 for roundtrip)
Permit/ approval2 organisations:  The NPRA’s road directorate EasyMileNo permit procedure > acceptance of the area administrationPermit issued for former pilots in same location
Launch date14th of June (phase 1) and 21st of September (phase 2)1st of April6th of October
Hours of operation 133156
No of operational days797030
No of days without an operator on-board28707
Break in service19.07 – 30.07none22.10 and 30.10 – 02.11
End date20th of September (phase 1) and 4th of November (phase 2)1st of October12th of November
Days weekly5 (Mon – Fri)Mon, Tue, Thu, Fri7 (Mon – Sun)
Hours daily6,7 > 7,52 (4 pm – 6 pm)5 (10 am – 3 pm)
SchedulePhases 1 –3 – noPhase 4 – on demandYesYes
Total no of passengers1585392017
Total no of courses163?450
Kms driven1986547989
Average speed (km/ hr)6,7?6,65
Max speed achieved (km/hr)11,7 (phase 1)11,5 (phase 2)?13 (automated mode)25 (manual mode)
Drop in speed btwn phasesyesnoyes
OutsourcingExternal servicesExternal servicesExternal services and bus
ProcurementNone?Bid at three for teleoperationOpen tender for the pilot organisation
Own busYesYesNo
Bus make and modelEasymile EZ10 shuttle gen 3IseautoIseauto
No of emergency stops3001311
No of operator’s interventions4981168
    
Co-financing rateNo data85%85%
Energy consumtpion per day11,2/ day (phase 1), 10,6/ day (phase 2)No data15,19
Total energy consumption (kWh)1035,7No data455,5
Traffic issuesIncorrectly parked vehicles, delivery vehiclesNot reportedIncorrectly parked vehicles, mixed pedestrian and car traffic
Remote control centerOne locallyTwo (1 in Tallin and one in Riga)One locally (occasionally one in Tallinn)
Teleoparation workforce set upSupervisor and field operator in the control room > Field operator send out to intervene.Two centres oeprating simultaneouslyVehicle operator moved from the vehicle to the centre for 7 operational days. Passenger assistant still on-board.
Teleoperation equipment set uplaptop, wide angle monitor, headset, external mouse and keyboard3 monitors, PC computer, steering wheel with a pedal,manual emergecy stop button.wide angle monitor, PC computer,  steering wheel, mouse, keybord, pedal (gas, break)
Network4G/ 5G4G/ 5G3G/ 4G
GarageWithin the campus area, 600 m away from the route2,4 km away from the route, owned by transport providerTemporary, provided by Economic Operator 100 m away from the route, within the enclosed area.
Key characteristics of the Sohjoa Last Mile pilots in 2021.

Fragile network connections may hinder the remote teleoperating

The remote fleet teleoperating require technical equipment for the operator to use in a control center, including computers, monitors and a steering mechanism. The equipment must match the vehicle’s software. Additionally, it is crucial to transmit data via 4G/5G connection with low latency and sufficient bandwidth.

Tallinn: two remote control centers and the trustworthy 4G network connection

In Tallinn pilot, there was a need to outsource the teleoperation software, which was after procurement delivered by a Latvian company. This resulted in simultaneous functioning of the two remote control centres – one at the Taltech’s campus and one in Riga.

The bus was always monitored by a safety person via teleoperation and an on-site safety person. An onsite safety person was equipped with a long range (LoRa) radio transmitter that had an emergency stop button on it. The bus was equipped with a receiver that could detect if the radio transmitter was in range or not. In case the signal was lost, the bus would make an emergency stop. The range of the transmitter was very dependent on the area of testing, varying from 50 to 250 meters. Even though the bus was capable of traveling from the garage to the show route autonomously and without a safety person on-board, this person was inside the vehicle throughout the first lap of the regular driving route. The aim was to conduct a daily emergency braking test. After completing the safety tests and check-ups, the safety person stayed outside of the bus but within eyesight (up to 50 m distance). A safety person could also accompany passengers on-board the shuttle upon their request. The teleoperator had constant access to all of the bus’ live data, lidar and video feeds and could monitor the surroundings and the interior of the bus. He also was equipped with a separate emergency button in the office. At the end of daily operations, the safety person went on-board the bus to change the regular operating route to the route that takes the bus back to the garage.

5G has been publicly launched to offer high speeds and low latency. In the Tallinn pilot, Taltech tested 5G for controlling the bus and measured the speeds and latency in 11 different points. The university could then compare it to 4G in the same points. The need to remotely control the shuttle was rare, but when it occurred, no issues arouse. The results of network measurements had shown that 5G coverage is several times better on the actual route of the bus than it is on the service road. Such a distinction cannot be drawn in the case of 4G. This deviation in 5G speeds that is directly related to the physical geometry of the operational area and can be mitigated by tactically placing 5G masts to improve coverage along the route. Throughout the pilot experience has not indicated the need for 5G due to insufficient 4G speeds. What is more notable, 4G was more stable than 5G, so unless the aim is specifically to test 5G, the project partner suggests using 4G in similar operations.

Developing the Language of Driving in Tallinn

There are not yet global standards for the human- or computer-driven, electric vehicles’ how-to indicate their intentions in mixed traffic. For a human driver, other road users can see their body language and gestures if necessary, but if there is no driver on board, other road users may get confused.

“[…]I think people don’t usually watch inside the buses if there is anybody or not, but when they do notice that there is nobody, it gets a lot of attention and they start worrying about where does it go and how does it go.”

Krister Kalda, project manager, TalTech

The Sohjoa Last Mile project in Tallinn allowed Iseauto to test their own language of driving, where the vehicle can illuminate different signalling patterns to pedestrians. A red blinking cross pattern is used when this particular vehicle starts to perform an emergency braking caused by a person unexpectedly appearing on the road. It is intended to alert people in dangerous situations. Voice messages were also used on Iseauto vehicles to guide other road users and pedestrians. This feature was in use at Tallinn and Gdansk pilots.

Kongsberg: Camera stream from the autonomous vehicle is a stress test

The internet connection between the autonomous vehicle (AV) and the control center in Kongsberg was crucial to the pilot operations: both the camera feeds and the remote-controlled functions (e.g. supervisor stopping the AV) required stable connections. When setting up the control center, the network connection was provided initially was 5G. However, EasyMile requires a different set up in order to stream the videos correctly. A quick workaround was established by using a Virtual Private Network, which however introduced noticeable latencies, and a mobile 5G router was temporarily used as well before the network protocols could be fixed. The mobile router and final solution worked well and provided a stable connection.

Streaming camera feeds from three cameras, as well as a high-resolution location map results in significant data volumes transfers. If the type of setup used was to be scaled to a fleet of vehicles, a supervisor following camera feeds from all vehicles would not only lead to cognitive overload but also rapidly become technologically infeasible due to limited bandwidth. However, it is to be expected that as the technology matures and trust is built, the supervisor will not have to continuously watch a camera feed but only switch on the cameras when the AV requires it.

At no point did the 5G functionality or any other network related feature led to any downtime of the AV. However, it was found that the cameras on the AV were not suitable for providing enough information to the supervisor in all conditions. Additionally, it was found that the built-in cameras were not able to cope with more challenging light conditions.

Gdansk: Temporary infrastructure for a short term pilot is not feasible

The city of Gdansk decided to contract an external company to carry out the entire piloting of the autonomous bus. It was up to the contractor to fulfill all the conditions necessary for autonomous driving to be carried out by remote supervision and remote control of the vehicle. As part of the tender process announced, potential contractors asked whether the city would provide a 5G network. There is not public network at the Cemetery. However, 5G network will be important for commercial deployments of autonomous vehicles, in pilots similar to the one implemented in Gdansk, a 4G network will be sufficient provided that certain conditions are met. These conditions include a stable connection ensured throughout the area with a transmission speed (sending data) of not less than 10 mbps, and the actual speed at the cemetery the speed often dropped to 5-6 mbps and sometimes to 2 mbps and a complete lack of connectivity.

As it turned out during the pilot, providing adequate infrastructure requires time minimum of two to three months. This process consists of an initial survey of network coverage, design of a solution for the area and implementation. From the time the contract was signed, there were two months left to implement the whole pilot. According to Economic Operator this situation strongly affected the delay and launch of the teleoperation mode understood as provision of the service without a Vehicle Operator onboard in a way that the safety of all traffic participants is ensured. The Economic Operator also reported that the situation around the cemetery strongly affected the network quality. There was a significant decrease in the speed and quality of internet connectivity at peak times around the cemetery due to increased number of vehicles around. The decrease was also experienced at weekends when there was an increase in the number of visitors.

When bandwidth was reduced, the Vehicle Operator monitoring the vehicle from the remote-control center was not able to fully assess the situation around the vehicle due to the significant delay and poor quality of the camera image transmission. In moments of fading, he lost communication with the vehicle, which made it impossible to react and make decisions.

During the pilot, the 3G/4G LTE networks of the four largest available operators in Poland were used, however, none of them allowed to achieve appropriate transmission quality at all times. Some of them did not even cover the entire route.

“…I believe it might be controversial choice of a pilot at cemetery […] However, the feedback we are getting here from passengers is that, please, keep it for a longer term. Keep it forever.”

Magdalena Szymańska, project manager, City of Gdansk

Piloting is a necessary testing phase for all cities transitioning to autonomous services

For all three Sohjoa Last Mile piloting partners, the launch of the pilot without an operator on board represented significant progress and provided valuable experience and data to be used in future projects.

The successful autonomous shuttle pilots

  1. Have a solid setup plan
    • Testing an autonomous vehicle (AV) require always the test-permit-application processes, logistics and different types of administrative steps. A pilot route and vehicle  provider must be selected. Especially when piloting without an operator on-board in remote controlled mode, there are no turnkey solutions available yet.
  2. Develop broad local collaboration for support
    • In Norway, Kongsberg Municipality outsourced practicalities to Applied Autonomy and collaborated with the Norwegian Public Roads Administration (NPRA), Viken County, the regional public transport company Brakar, and their transport provider Vy, as well as EasyMile, the supplier of autonomous vehicles. In this case, NPRA and Brakar contributed financially to the project, with a view towards learning about the technology and processes.
  3. Cooperate with interdisciplinary mindset
    • In Estonia, the project brought together three different units in Tallinn University of Technology (TalTech): the School of Engineering, the School of Business and Governance and the Smart City Center of Excellence. All units had their specific focal points, and the interdisciplinary approach allowed to study more closely both the technical requirements and challenges related to fully autonomous driving, and the societal context and focus on challenges for cities and users. Throughout the project, TalTech was supported by the authorities and Tallinn Transport Department.
  4. Allow knowledge-sharing across organisational and national boarders
    • Kongsberg Municipality and TalTech had previous experience in pilot implementation on a larger scale and in varying weather conditions as well as in-house resources in the form of an autonomous electric bus. In contrast, the City of Gdansk had previously implemented a small scale pilot, again had the opportunity to learn from more experienced partners.
  5. Commit to long-term development work from pilots to regular services 
    • Without a plan for transition, no city jumps from one small scale pilot instantly to a permanent regular autonomous shuttle bus solution. The persistent work with the local ecosystem actors has resulted in Kongsberg as the bus route number 450, the autonomous bus service seeded from the Sohjoa Baltic project.

“[…] in Poland, there were no other municipalities or transport operators who had real knowledge, hands on autonomous pilots and autonomous minibuses. […] I don’t think we would’ve been able to build services like this if we didn’t get feedback and didn’t exchange experience with other partners within the consortium […] we could ask for help and we would always get it. And also, there was a huge help with networking and contacting potential companies that would be in a tender we announced.”

Magdalena Szymańska, project manager, City of Gdansk

In the end, pilots are deployed to support the development of cities’ public transport services. They are designed to test and collect hard data, but also to serve and search feedback from the service users. Communicating openly and encouraging the public to get onboard and test-drive the robot bus is a way to raise awareness of the future of mobility. Without users, there is no need for services.

Confirming the need for further development together

In addition to the pilot operations, Sohjoa Last Mile project partners organized national ARTS workshops in Poland, Latvia and Finland in order to reach the local autonomous mobility actors and receive information, how the autonomous road transport systems are developing currently. These events were both live workshops as well as webinars due to the pandemic.

The main conclusions were, that the pace of transformation towards autonomous mobility and public transport differs per country, hence the regulatory changes as well as further investments in piloting, technology research and infrastructure are necessary.

“[…] in a sense I think the younger generation are not that worried about some of the jobs going away. They see the new ones are coming […] and they’re even looking out for those. The startup scene is very appealing to many and that is mostly new jobs and new way of thinking.”

Krister Kalda, project manager, TalTech

The key messages for decision-makers project Sohjoa Last Mile consortium has compiled with project partner Forum Virium Helsinki leading the process, are found on video, embedded below.

Sohjoa Last Mile: Developing autonomous mobility requires regulatory action on YouTube

More information

Read more: Sohjoa Last Mile partner output reports on Google Drive.

Authors & interviewees

  • Estonia: Krister Kalda and Jaanus Müür – Tallinn University of Technology TalTech
  • Norway: Rebecca Ronke – Applied Autonomy
  • Poland: Magdalena Szymańska – City of Gdansk
  • Finland: Milla Åman Kyyrö (editor) – Metropolia University of Applied Sciences

Sohjoa Last Mile partners and funders

Sohjoa Last Mile partner logos, Kongsberg kommune, Gdansk, Zemgale planning region, Tallinn transport department, TalTech, Forum Virium Helsinki, Metropolia University of Applied Sciences
Sohjoa Last Mile logo, Interreg Baltic Sea Region logo, European Union Regional Development Fund logo

One Reply to “Accelerating evolution of mobility in the Baltic Sea Region – Sohjoa Last Mile’s robot bus pilot experiences”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *