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Driverless minibus service rolls out in Hamburg traffic

Technology News |
By Nick Flaherty


A self driving minibus has started operation in the traffic of Hamburg.

The HEAT (Hamburg Electric Autonomous Transportation) project will run for two months ahead of the ITS World Congress in the city.

“HEAT marks the first research project in Germany in which an autonomous bus operates under real traffic conditions through a control center in the middle of a Germany city,” said Henrik Falk, CEO of travel operator Hochbahn.

The autonomously operating minibus was developed by German provider IAV, has three seats and standing room for four, and is equipped with a ramp for barrier-free entries and exits. Due to the pandemic-related hygiene regulations currently in effect, capacity is limited to three persons at the same time. The only requirement for riding is a prior registration per app and wearing a standard medical mask.  

“The HEAT concept enables us to safely operate a fully automated shuttle for local public transport in the HafenCity of Hamburg. HEAT demonstrates what the sustainable, user-oriented mobility of tomorrow could look like – a future that IAV, as a provider of high-tech solutions, is playing a key role in shaping,” said Matthias Kratzsch, Chairman of the Managing Board at IAV.

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The vehicle’s direct observation and assessment of its surroundings is based on a system of radar and lidar sensors supported by cameras. The minibus also relies on the new route infrastructure developed by Siemens Mobility and installed by Hamburg Verkehrsanlagen (HHVA).

In addition, it uses a high-resolution map of its current route, accurate down to a few centimeters, provided by the city of Hamburg. The shuttle processes information from the map to precisely determine its position after comparing it with data from its immediate surroundings for navigation.

The use of roadside infrastructure is a unique feature of HEAT compared to other projects with autonomous vehicles. This infrastructure provides additional data along the route about other vehicles, bicycles and pedestrians outside the sensor range of the minibus.

Communication between the vehicle and the surrounding infrastructure also enables the minibus to pass traffic lights without any intervention by the vehicle attendant. The constant interaction of all system components allows the minibus to independently view and assess an entire intersection, including other approaching vehicles, pedestrians, or bicycles, and automatically stop and resume turning as the situation allows.

“By integrating a new technology for autonomous driving into Hamburg’s road traffic, HEAT is providing a strong stimulus for the development of future mobility. Comfortable, convenient and climate-friendly local public transport should be available throughout the city in the future as a viable alternative to using private cars. At the same time, the HEAT project also offers the city a preview of the ITS World Congress being held this October. At the event, Hamburg will show mobility concepts for the future, including autonomous driving in actual operation, intelligent and networked traffic management for both road and rail, and digital services that make our mobility easier, more comfortable and more convenient,” said Dr. Peter Tschentscher, Mayor of the Free and Hanseatic City of Hamburg.

Those interested can ride the minibus on its nearly two-kilometer circuit with five stops until the congress opens in mid-October. The vehicle operates on a route from the Sandtorkai via the Sandtorpark and Kaiserkai along the Elbphilharmonie concert hall at a speed of up to 25 km/h.  

“Autonomous shuttles can play an essential role as a new and attractive form of mobility. To provide them, we need to have intelligent transport systems. HEAT demonstrates how linking infrastructure and vehicle data contributes to the reliability of such a system. Siemens Mobility will use the findings from the HEAT project to further refine and advance our vision of autonomous public transport solutions for cities,” said Manfred Fuhg, Vice President Sales Rail Infrastructure Germany at Siemens Mobility.

The service follows extensive trials over the last two years with DLR collecting data . 

“Our research focuses on people and their needs and requirements with regard to new mobility systems. On the one hand are the users: We want to know about their experience with autonomous vehicles and what they need to feel comfortable. Based on this information, we can develop technical solutions for user-oriented driverless operations. On the other hand, HEAT also offers us an excellent opportunity to investigate how the use of self-driving vehicles in public transport affects activities in the control centre and what this means for designing future control center workplaces,” said Prof. Dr. Michael Ortgiese, Deputy Scientific Director, DLR – Institute for Transport Systems Technology.

One of the biggest challenges in the research project remains developing a legal framework for allowing autonomous vehicle operations. It was only in May of this year that Germany’s Federal Council finally approved a legal resolution that permits autonomous vehicles to operate without drivers in specifically defined public road space. However, this decision came too late for the HEAT project, and as a result, a vehicle attendant must remain on board to ensure safety until the ITS World Congress.

www.hochbahn.de/

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