On board the bus that runs through Malaga with the driver without his hands at the wheel
José Antonio Gálvez has been a bus driver for 16 years. But this is the first time that, sitting behind the wheel, it moves by itself. His hands are resting on his legs as the speed slows without anyone pressing the brakes and the 17-ton vehicle heads into a roundabout, which is complete in absolute silence. Back on a straight, no one touches anything during the first section of the journey on line 90 of the Malagueña de Transportes Company (EMT).
“I had never seen anything like this,” emphasizes Gálvez, who can later see how the bus dialogue with the 11 traffic lights you are on your way through the center of Malaga to start braking before they turn amber or speed up when the green arrives. Any user can enjoy this experience from this Saturday, as a traveler aboard AutoMOST, an electric and highly automated bus that makes a third of its trip – exactly the one that takes place inside the port – autonomously. In another third, the responsibility lies with the driver, who must take one hundred percent of the controls. In the latter case, driving is dual: both share decisions.
At first glance, the exterior of the bus does not differ from any other except for some cameras and sensors attached above the headlights and the license plate. In the interior there is no great change, except for a large tablet that accompanies the driver to one side of the steering wheel and a screen behind the seat that shows the images that are captured from outside. What is not seen is a technological brain that accumulates the information that all the devices offer it permanently to make its journey smoothly. The support of the human being, this time the driver and two technicians who will travel at all times, is still necessary; but those who enter this prototype will have the feeling of taking a little trip to the future. An exploration, yes, at a maximum of 20 kilometers per hour. “It is not about running, but about doing things well,” explains Rafael Durbán, director of the southern division of the transport company Avanza.
Loaded with sensors, cameras and other devices, the vehicle is the icing on the cake in the form of a four-year pilot project of research funded by the Center for Industrial Technical Development (CDTI) led by Avanza and with the participation of a dozen private companies, administrations such as the Malaga City Council and various universities. Although there have already been other similar projects in Spain, it is the first initiative of its kind to be developed with a 12-meter, 60-seater bus, in an urban environment and with passengers, allowing real interaction with the city. Its autonomy varies between level two and three of a maximum of five, which would be the completely autonomous car. This prototype controls longitudinal and lateral mobility – that is, it accelerates, brakes and turns on its own – but does not make decisions in the face of adversity. “In that case, it cedes responsibility to the driver,” says Durbán. This transmission between the driver and the vehicle and vice versa is another aspect that is studied in these tests.
A vehicle with four technology groups
The bus has four groups of technologies, according to Jesús Murgoitio, project manager at the Tecnalia technology center, another of the firms involved in the project. The first is based on differential GPS, cameras and LIDAR technology that helps to position the vehicle at all times. The second, also with sensors and cameras, is dedicated to knowing what is around the bus. The third has to do with wireless communications: especially those that allow it to establish is communication with traffic lights and other surrounding infrastructure. The fourth and last is based on the internet of things, which allows information about the vehicle and the environment to be reported to the control center, “so that transport is more intelligent and efficient,” Murgoitio underlines.
Every day, except Sundays, between 10:00 am and 2:00 pm, the vehicle will travel the EMT Line 90 with travelers who reserve their place – free of charge and through the municipal company’s website. The route connects the maritime station at the southern end of the Port of Malaga with the city center, so it was originally designed so that it could serve as a support for the thousands of cruise passengers who came to the capital of the Costa del Sol each year. The pandemic has docked cruise ships and delayed these tests, but they will finally take place until March 15. “From these tests, companies will be able to obtain patents, universities research articles and we will draw many conclusions that allow us to improve,” says Miguel Ruiz, manager of the EMT, who believes that it will be able to help, among other issues, to reduce the number of accidents. “And it is not about reducing staff: the driver will still be there, although perhaps for other tasks. And it will also require specialized personnel to control the technology, ”says Ruiz.
Those involved in this project also rule out that buses or autonomous cars are a reality in the short or medium term. “There is a long way to go in both urban infrastructure and legislation,” explains Rafael Durbán, in addition to offering challenges for cybersecurity. For all this, 5G technology is essential and, although it has already begun its deployment in Malaga, it is still insufficient for the dialogue between this bus and devices such as traffic lights to be totally clean and without latency (the delay in the transmission of information) . For all these reasons, for the moment AutoMOST will avoid the philosophical dilemma of who should kill, as the lesser evil, an autonomous vehicle. For that extreme, at least for now, is the driver José Antonio Gálvez.