Full speed ahead: This is how far self-driving cars, buses, ships, and trains have come

20. July 2023

Germany has big plans: With the autonomous driving law coming into effect in mid-2021, the German government sees itself as a pioneer in this field. More and more projects are focusing on self-driving vehicles. Experts believe that autonomous transportation will be indispensable in the future, but Germans are still skeptical about self-driving vehicles. We take a look at the state of the art – on the road, on the rails, and on the water.

Germany is slowly moving in the direction of autonomous driving. The law on automated driving came into force back in June 2017. It allowed the use of automated systems (level 3) if the driver can intervene in traffic events and vehicle control at any time. In July 2021, another amendment to the Road Traffic Act came into force. It regulates that autonomous motor vehicles (level 4) can drive in defined operating areas on public roads in regular operation.

In recent years, there have already been a large number of projects, especially with potentially autonomous shuttle buses. Because experts agree on one thing: Without a mobility turnaround with autonomously driving modes of transport, the shortage of skilled workers will become an even bigger problem. There is already a shortage of truck drivers, barge operators and bus drivers. In a recently launched trial, Deutsche Bahn (DB) is running autonomous on-demand vehicles in the Rhine-Main region with project partners. In May 2023, an autonomous shuttle will be on the road for the first time in Darmstadt. In the months thereafter, 14 more vehicles will be added. In the first test phase, all shuttles will be operated by specially trained drivers and without passengers.

Experts say self-driving vehicles controlled by artificial intelligence (AI) have benefits beyond saving on human labor. Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have found that an optimized driving style will ensure a steady flow of traffic – eliminating stops, braking, and hard starts, thus reducing fuel consumption and emissions. According to the MIT study, this would reduce fuel consumption by 18 percent and carbon dioxide emissions by 25 percent. In addition, electric public transportation with high or on-demand frequency would reduce the number of trips made by private vehicles.

Here’s what’s happening in other countries:
In the U.S., the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) cleared the way for the production and use of driverless vehicles in March 2022, ruling that the cars need not have manual controls such as steering wheels or pedals. However, occupants inside the vehicle must be protected to the same degree as today’s passenger cars. Some states are leading the way: In Phoenix, Arizona, for example, Waymo’s robot taxis have been on the road since September 2021. The US company is owned by Google.

Canada wants to reduce traffic fatalities by using autonomous vehicles. In August 2021, the Ministry of Transport (Transport Canada) published guidelines for the testing of automated driving systems. The guidelines are intended to provide a basis for consistent legislation across all provinces and territories for the safe testing of automated driving systems in SAE Level 3-5 driving systems, including required pre-test approvals from government agencies and safety considerations. The provinces of Ontario, British Columbia and Quebec, as well as some municipalities, have already begun their own activities.

In China, fully autonomous taxis have been operating on public roads since mid-2022. Chinese technology giant Baidu was the first company in the People’s Republic to be given the green light to operate the robot cabs.

The United Kingdom has set itself the goal of enabling autonomous driving (SAE Level 4) on public roads by 2025. In August 2022, the government answered a legal question about liability that is still unresolved in many countries: the occupants of a self-driving vehicle will no longer be liable for “incidents” that occur while the vehicle is in motion, but rather the manufacturer.

There is still no legal framework for autonomous navigation of ships, but at least there is an idea for a framework. This was drafted for the first time in 2018 by the Central Commission for Navigation on the Rhine (CCNR) and will be revised in December 2022. The regulations for maritime and inland navigation already differ due to the different legal frameworks (international vs. national), with inland navigation also having to find rules that can be applied across national borders.

In addition to the problem of difficult legislation, as with road traffic, liability issues are a major obstacle to autonomous shipping – for example, is the manufacturer or the shipowner responsible for possible accidents? (An interesting interview with an insurer can be found here.) However, there are already test areas where autonomous shipping can be tested – including the Dortmund-Ems Canal, the Spree-Oder Waterway, and the Kiel Fjord (with the CAPTN Fjord Area II project).

In Germany, for example, the Technical University of Berlin, DST, and Unleash Future Boats are working on autonomous transport vessels on the Schlei River in Schleswig-Holstein. The Interreg project AVATAR (Autonomous vessels, cost-effective transhipment, waste return) aims to develop autonomous transport chains on waterways in the North Sea region.

Here is what other countries do in regards to autonomous sailing:
In February 2022, the autonomous cargo ship Yara Birkeland completed its maiden voyage. The all-electric container ship sailed a 12-nautical-mile route along the Norwegian coast between its home port of Herøya and Brevik. Norwegian technology and defense company Kongsberg equipped the approximately 80-meter-long, 120,000 TEU vessel with the sensors needed for remote and autonomous operation, as well as the electric propulsion, battery and propulsion control systems. The container ship is expected to be certified and able to operate without a skipper by the end of 2024.

In the same time period, Japanese media also reported the successful test of AI-controlled cargo ships. The Mikage, a 95-meter vessel owned by Mitsui Lines, sailed from the port of Tsuruga on the Sea of Japan to the port of Sakai near Osaka using a system of radar and lidar sensors, cameras, and a satellite compass for navigation. At the end of the 161-nautical-mile voyage, the Mikage motored to a berth independently and used aerial drones to lower ropes to dock workers waiting below to secure the ship. NYK Line tested a second self-propelled vessel in Japanese waters. The Suzaku traveled about 500 miles in Tokyo Bay, reportedly completing 99% of the distance without human intervention and avoiding collisions thanks to Orca AI software.

In the future, many countries will increasingly rely on self-propelled vessels for passenger ferries. In Germany, CAPTN is currently the only initiative working on this topic.

In Norway, the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) is developing a fully electric, autonomous passenger ferry in cooperation with Zeabuz, a spin-off company of the university, and the Norwegian Research Council. The milliAmpere 2 electric ferry (8.5 meters long and 3.5 meters wide) will initially carry up to 12 passengers on canals in a test operation in Trondheim. A similar project is planned for Stockholm with NTNU, Zeabus and shipbuilder Brødrene Aa. Starting in April 2023, a 12-meter ferry will transport up to 25 passengers across the Swedish capital’s waterways.

Another Norwegian company is working on the implementation of autonomous passenger transportation on the water: Hydrolift is working with Hyke to develop all-electric, solar-powered ferries for up to 50 passengers, complete with intelligent docking and charging systems and related autonomous ferry management software.

In the Netherlands, researchers at the Amsterdam Institute for Advanced Metropolitan Solutions are working with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on two-by-four-meter aluminum vessels that will operate autonomously. In the not-too-distant future, the roboats could shuttle small groups of tourists through the canals and also be used to transport cargo when needed. Near Leiden, a robotic ferry for up to twelve people (not including bicycles) is already commuting. The “Vaar met Ferry” project is a collaboration between the US company Buffalo Automation, which develops technology for autonomous boats, and the Dutch Future Mobility Network, and takes passengers to the island of Koudenhoorn.

In October 2022, Trafikverket Sweden ordered four autonomous electric ferries from Holland Shipyards Group. The delivery includes two ferries with four automooring systems and two charging stations, a simulator facility and a remote control center. The 86 meter long and almost 15 meter wide ferries will be able to carry up to 60 cars and will initially operate at Level 2.

Rolls-Royce and the state-owned Finnish Ferry Transport Group (Finferries) have already been operating the autonomous ferry Falco in the Turku archipelago since November 2018.

In public rail transport, autonomous trains are already relatively common in Europe. In Germany, only Nuremberg has an automated subway. The French city of Lille was a pioneer in 2008. Driverless trains now operate in more than 60 cities, including London, Paris, Vancouver, Sao Paulo, Mexico, and Singapore.

At present, it does not seem realistic that autonomous transportation in Germany will be sufficiently accepted by the population in the near future. A survey conducted in August 2022 by the international data & analytics group YouGov in cooperation with the Center of Automotive Management (CAM) found that just under half of the representative sample (49%) could not imagine fully autonomous vehicles, such as robot cabs, being used in the future. However, it is clear that younger age groups have a much more positive attitude towards autonomous vehicles: Some 63 percent of 18- to 34-year-olds can “very well” (28 percent) or “maybe” (35 percent) imagine using them. The study’s authors write further: “To increase the acceptance of robotaxis, existing reservations must be taken into account. For example, autonomous vehicles raise fears and uncertainties. About half of the respondents (48%) doubt the fundamental safety of vehicles in which a human is no longer responsible for driving. 39% fear being involved in an accident. At the same time, the cybersecurity risk is seen as a problem, i.e. the fear of hacking or possible manipulation of vehicles (40%). Approximately one-third of respondents (31%) also believe that the use of autonomous vehicles will be associated with higher acquisition costs due to the technology required on board. Other concerns include worries about surveillance.

(This article was translated with the held of DeepL.)