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HEAT – Another autonomous minibus in the market

Since the beginning of August 2021, passengers in Hamburg can use the autonomous and electric HEAT minibus of Hamburger Hochbahn | © HHA Hamburger Hochbahn AG

Autonomous driving: For a few years now, serious efforts are under way to bring autonomous buses onto the roads. Buses that no longer need drivers, but find their routes all by themselves, operate the stops, not only recognise traffic lights on the road, but also correctly “understand” their signal colours and act accordingly, i.e. stop at yellow and red, drive at green. Even more importantly, they recognise obstacles on their way and react to them by brakingand releasing a warning signal (“honking”).

Although the market for such autonomous buses is still very small, the first minibuses that can actually drive completely on their own have been around for a few years now. These include the “EasyMile EZ 10” from Toulouse in France, as well as the Navya Arma, also from France, namely from near Lyon. And at Busworld in October 2019 in Brussels, “e.GO”, a company that goes back to Professor Günter Schuh from the RWTH Aachen University, presented the prototype of its “e.GO Mover” mini bus.

Very early autonomous minibus: the EasyMile EZ 10

A few years ago, the first autonomous minibuses also showed what they could do and above all they also proved in the meantime that they can actually deliver on their promise. In March 2017, for example, the author was already invited to demonstration drives with the EasyMile EZ 10 at the Darmstadt HEAG mobilo. A “line” had been set up on the grounds of a former American barrack, which had just been transformed into a civilian housing estate, which the EasyMile EZ 10 complementedperfectly. The route design also included an intersection that the bus had to recognise and where it had to turn right in one and left in the opposite direction. The demonstration car was a real two-directional vehicle: there was no need to turn around at the last stop, the car simply arrived at the stop, waited for its break and then set off again in the opposite direction.

EasyMile EZ 10 on test in Darmstadt | © Christian Marquordt

The driving demonstrations were impressive in that the small bus reacted reliably to unexpected obstacles. An instructor then proposed that someone should jump directly in front of the bus during the ride. “And believe us,” he said, “the person who is about to do this is not suicidal. So it happened, while we were driving autonomously on the “line”, a young man suddenly jumped in front of the car. The bus stopped immediately and absolutely nothing happened to the young man. After this demonstration EasyMile declared: “An autonomous bus doesn’t suffer from a moment of shock. While bus drivers have to process what theyhad just seen and only then start reacting, the autonomous bus immediately “jumps automatically on the brakes”. The reaction difference of two to three seconds can make a major difference and can eventually help to avoid accidents.

In spring 2019, an EasyMile EZ 10 completed test runs in Drolshagen in North Rhine-Westphalia. The test line started at a retirement home and went from there in a straight line through the city. This route structure can be described as ideal for an autonomous minibus service, since elderly citizens are often no longer able to walk well and need to be picked up and taken to locations where they can go shopping or can enjoy life with friends and family. The essential task for the small autonomous bus was very similar to the demonstration route in Darmstadt, where the EZ 10 had to differentiate between public roads and the estate of the senior residence. A short summary of the test in Drolshagen: the bus operated perfectly and delivered its service as expected. As a precaution, the supervisory authority had only allowed a maximum speed of 13 km/h during this test. “What do you think of this speed limit? ” the author asked the representatives of EasyMille, who accompanied the test. The reply was a friendly smile and a straight forward answer: “It could go up to 40 km/h. However, the supervisory authorities are still cautious and do not allow what the EZ 10 is able to deliver without any problems”.

Test of an EasyMile EZ 10 in Drolshagen | © Christian Marquordt

In the meantime it can be said that the EasyMile EZ 10 is already quite a familiar appearance in daily line operations. For example, there is a service on offer in the Lower Bavarian spa town of Bad Birnbach between the spa district and the railway station, which is operated by a subsidiary of the DB Group. The special challenge of this line is that the autonomous bus has to cross a busy main road. To ensure that this can be done safely, the crossing is secured with a traffic light system. But the EZ 10 must not only recognise the traffic light, it must also “understand” the colour signals that the traffic light sends and, above all, act accordingly. Similar to the test in Drolshagen, the supervisory authority of Bad Birnbach was cautious as well: in the area of the intersection, where the small autonomous vehicle crosses the federal highway, motorists are only allowed to travel at a speed of 30 km/h on the highway.

In the Berlin district of Tegel, there was since the autumn of 2019 a test line in operation between Tegel underground station and Lake Tegel. In this case, the bus was operating in normal city traffic and it fulfilled the expectations placed in it. Nevertheless, this test was completed after the scheduled time. Berlin continues to focus on the use of autonomous minibuses. Once again in Tegel, three new routes are planned on which such vehicles will be tested.

The Stadtwerke Osnabrück are also gaining their first experiences with regular autonomous bus services with an EZ 10, which was named “Hubi”.

However, most EasyMile EZ 10s in Germany are currently operating in the medium-sized town of Monheim in North Rhine-Westphalia – located nearthe river Rhine between Cologne and Düsseldorf. In this city, the buses operate on the “A 01” line every 15 minutes from the bus station via the old town to the banks of the Rhine. For this line, the “Bahnen der Stadt Monheim” have five autonomous mini-buses (cars 72 to 76) in service.

Another line using the EZ 10 has just started operation on the campus of a university near Madrid. UTM reported already on the operations in Osnabrück, Monheim and near Madrid: https://www.urban-transport-magazine.com/en/osnabruck-to-test-autonomous-easymile-minibus/ https://www.urban-transport-magazine.com/en/autonomous-minibus-in-monheim/ https://www.urban-transport-magazine.com/en/autonomous-driving-the-first-easy-mile-minibus-in-spain/

Coming back to Berlin once again. In the German capital, passengers can travel with autonomous minibuses on the grounds of the university’s famous clinic “Charité”. For this purpose, two EasyMile EZ 10 and two “Arma” type vehicles from the factory halls of the French company Navya are operating on the road.

The Navya Arma

Which brings us to the other autonomous French minibus, the Navya Arma. It is built in Villeurbanne, near Lyon in France.

In September 2018, Navya delivered such an Arma to Contern in Luxembourg, where the car commutes between the “Campus Contern” industrial estate and the “Kühne und Nagel” bus stop on a line that was newly established at the time and is around two kilometres long. “Kühne und Nagel” is located near the railway station.

Navya Arma in Kontern/Luxembourg | © Christian Marquordt

The author was in Contern in January 2019 for a test drive with the small Arma. And he found out that it did what it was supposed to do. It braked a bit abruptly, but that is ultimately only a question of programming. The bus reliably recognised when a road was entering from the right or left and stopped in front of those junctions. But there was also a small weakness of this early Arma:Neither did it recognize, if there was anybody on the road from the right and consequently it could have caused an accident, nor could the bus being started on its own. This required a command from the “companion”, who had to restart the bus manually using its console. And in order to drive not only close to the station, but right up to the station, the Navya had to pass a multi-lane roundabout at “Kühne und Nagel”, which was – back in January 2019 – still far too complicated for the artificial intelligence software of the vehicle. But even then, Contern municipality said: “The extension to the railway station is coming.” And there was another small problem: on the way, the line route passed a particularly thick tree. Little Arma recognised it, identified it as an obstacle and hit the brakes hard. Even though the tree is of course next to the road. The attendant reported that the car did this every single time on its route.

Another Navya Arma went into operation in spring 2019 on the German posh island of Sylt. Its line: Westerland – Keitum and back.

But in the meantime the Navya Arma is also in operation outside of Europe. Since late summer 2020, the local subsidiary of the French transport group Keolis has been using an Arma in Newcastle, Australia, on a line along the Pacific coast (UTM reported on it: https://www.urban-transport-magazine.com/en/newcastle-in-australia-autonomous-minibus-navya-arma-on-test-by-keolis//).

This was a brief overview of what has happened so far in the world of autonomous buses. The small autonomous buses do work, but they – not least their programming – still has to “learn” a lot. And in order to be on the safe side, they all still need a “companion” who can intervene if necessary.

Hamburg’s HEAT project

Which brings us now to the new HEAT (Hamburg Electric Autonomous Transportation) project. In Hamburg, an approximately one-kilometre-long circular route with an autonomous minibus from Berlin-based manufacturer IAV started operation in the HafenCity on 23 October 2020.

© HHA Hamburger Hochbahn
The minibus in service

The bus is five metres long and – for the first time in Germany – it can travel at a speed of up to 25 km/h. The self-supporting car body consists, as it is usually the case in bus constructions, of square profile tubes, which are planked with plastic as an outer skin. The window panes are also made of plastic, only the pane with the emergency exit is made out of glass.

IAV did not only supply the body of the bus but it also contributed key elements of the rest of the vehicle’s technology, such as the electrical system, the central control system, operating and display instruments, the integration of a joystick (which allows the “operator” to intervene) via “drive by wire” etc.

Hamburg’s “HEAT” owes its relatively high speed limit of 25 km/h to its newly developed, extensive ability to perceive its surroundings. In addition to all the information the bus itself collects via sensors, there is also a route infrastructure developed by Siemens Mobility, which is provided by the Hamburg Transport Authority (HHVA). This information is transmitted constantly to the bus. And finally, the autonomous minibus uses an HD map provided by the city, which guarantees an accuracy of only a few centimetres.

© HHA Hamburger Hochbahn AG

The information from these three sources combined is “superimposed” on the HEAT. In this way, the concrete position of the bus and any deviations are determined, and from this the bus “recognises” what needs to be done in any specific situation. Michael Kratzsch, Managing Director Technology at IAV: “We did the entire vehicle development, including the integrated technologies for autonomous driving. The special feature of the HEAT project in Hamburg is the roadside infrastructure. It provides additional information about what is happening on the road and in the surrounding area and transmits it to the bus, for example about other vehicles, cyclists and pedestrians who are out of sight of the bus’s sensors because an intersection cannot be seen or other road users are obscured by a larger vehicle. In addition, the roadside infrastructure allows traffic lights to be passed without the need for the attendant to intervene”.

Dr. Anjes Tjarks, Hamburg’s senator responsible for the mobility turnaround, said at the presentation of the small IAV: “The autonomous minibus is part of the smart mobility mix of our city. At the same time, it is part of the city’s “ITS strategy” (ITS = Intelligent Transport Systems). And we want to present it at the worldwide ITS congress, which will be held in Hamburg in 2021″.

HEAT press conferenz on 23 Oct 2020 in Hamburg: Hochbahn CEO Henrik Falk and Hamburg’s Senator Dr. Anjes Tjark | © Krafft Angerer Unternehmenskommunikation Hamburger Hochbahn AG

The implementation of the project was challenging due to the urban environment with cyclists and pedestrians, and Tjarks made it clear: “We want to be at the forefront of autonomous driving worldwide”.

Henrik Falk, CEO of Hamburger Hochbahn, said: “The autonomous minibus is ideal for connections where the use of a large bus is not practical”. He pointed to the two passenger information systems installed in the “HEAT”, which not only indicate the next stops but also the arrival time there.

He said that the autonomous minibus received its driving order from the Hamburger Hochbahn control centre, even though a vehicle attendant will still be on board for the time being. And because passengers register via an app, the control centre can also tell the bus which stops need to be served.

Falk concludes: “We know that there is still a long way to go before autonomous buses are generally used, but things are moving forward.

Matthias Hartwig from the Institute for Climate Protection, Energy and Mobility (IKEM) pointed out that it was a “top achievement” to obtain legal approval for Hamburg’s autonomous minibus. The next step in the operation of such vehicles must be an even greater degree of automation, he said. For this, however, the road traffic law would have to be updated. Hartwig called for an “experimentation clause” in the road traffic law, “which makes it possible to drive without a vehicle attendant and thus advances technical development”.

The future of the HEAT project

At the end of this year, the car will first go to Gifhorn for evaluation and further development. It will return to Hamburg in mid 2021. It will then serve a larger, two-kilometre circuit in the HafenCity.

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