As reported last Monday, Switzerland will become one of the first countries in the world to roll out a fully autonomous, driverless bus system for actual passenger use come Spring 2016. (OK, so there are only two buses for now, but that still qualifies as a “system,” no?) As promised, however, I wanted to reach out to members of the team behind this exciting endeavor, NAVYA, in order to learn more, and specifically, to clarify an important question: can remote operators take control of the buses if necessary?
But first, some more background on NAVYA, their ARMA driverless automated bus, and what they’re on about.
So what is NAVYA?
Let’s put it this way: Google aren’t the only ones that have been working on driverless cars the past ten years. Yes, NAVYA have also been designing and producing fully autonomous cars since June 2014, and even testing them on roads around the world in Switzerland, France, USA, England, and Singapore.
Their expertise is remarkably broad, covering the entire spectrum of building an autonomous car, including not only the geolocation, navigation, and telecommunication software, but the physical construction as well. In a word then, they’re the real deal. Google, Tesla, consider yourselves on notice.
Headed by CEO Christophe Sapet, NAVYA’s 30 member strong team is divided between Lyon and Paris. With a background firmly rooted in technology, you almost certainly know about Sapet — at least indirectly — even if you don’t recognize his name: he was the co-founder of France’s first video game company Infogrames — now Atari, after they acquired the legendary gaming company in 2003 — as well as France’s first internet provider INFONIE.
A passionate petrolhead — like yours truly — Sapet started a classic car shop and drives in historical car rally races such as the famed Monte-Carlo and Tour de Corse events.
NAVYA, then, was borne from Sapet’s dual passions of technology and cars, a way to merge the two in order to pave a way towards a better, safer, more efficient, autonomous future of human transport.
The NAVYA ARMA bus
A 100% electric vehicle, the NAVYA ARMA launched in October. Intrestingly, it charges via wireless inductive charging stations — yes, like your electric SoniCare toothbrush — and can typically manage eight to 24 hours depending on use.
To be perfectly clear, the NAVYA ARMA is indeed a 100% driverless autonomous vehicle. To place it along the SAE spectrum of autonomous vehicles, then, it is a Cat 5 vehicle. This means it has no physical steering,
gas go, or brake inputs on board the vehicle whatsoever.
The first routes will be small, restricted, private roads, the routes mapped out and programmed beforehand, with the buses monitored remotely as they travel round the circuit. Fleet management software is provided by BestMile.
Interestingly — but perhaps not surprisingly given that it will be transporting actual live, breathing humans — the NAVYA ARMA is, um, armed, with a full suite of the latest autonomous car visualization technology. LIDAR, stereo vision cameras, GPS navigation, and infrared sensors round out the package to give the buses full 360-degree spacial awareness, while also gaining experience over time by memorizing fixed obstacles on their route. All said and done, this gives the buses an accuracy within 2 cm.
As far as creature comforts go, the buses are nothing less than bleeding edge techno-cool: an onboard speaker system communicates automatically with passengers who can similarly communicate with the bus via onboard touchscreen displays, while the fully closed (and, thanks to a lack of driver requirements, perfectly symmetric) cabins provide comfortable seats, and protect against all weather conditions.
Most interesting is that the buses can also communicate with one another, as well as other vehicles, pedestrians, and even passengers on board using a system of lights and display devices. Very cool stuff, this.
What the NAVYA ARMA does not do
To be clear, the NAVYA ARMA is not a general purpose city bus. At least, not yet; not during this first phase of public deployment, anyway. While future applications certainly include such venues as airports, industrial sites, amusement parks, hospitals, convention centers, and even university campuses, the first two buses’ deployment in Spring 2016 will be restricted to private roads in a popular tourist area of Sion, Switzerland, and even then, to speeds no greater than 50 km/h (31 mph).
So… can the buses be controlled remotely?
Obviously, during these early days of autonomous vehicles — especially 100%, driverless autonomous vehicles — is the question of whether there is any backup safety mechanism that allows the buses to be remotely operated. That was the question we were left with when last we discussed NAVYA.
And it’s a big question, something that will surely be on everyone’s minds. To refresh your memory, the issue is that these fully autonomous — read: completely driverless — buses have absolutely no physical means of control by a human inside the vehicle. Rather, they are remotely “managed” from afar — not “driven” — not unlike an air traffic control tower managing aircraft.
To make an important distinction then, fully autonomous driverless cars that still allow a human to take over — e.g., Cat 4, à la Ford — is one thing; fully autonomous driverless cars with no human control interface whatsoever — Cat 5 — is totally different. Put another way, what happens if something goes wrong? Surely the buses won’t truly be left entirely to their own devices?
I managed to get in touch with Diego Isaac, Marketing and Communication Manager for NAVYA, who was good enough to reply to me. The question then, was whether these remote operators are capable of direct control intervention if necessary.
Here’s what Isaac had to say:
The Fleet Management is done from a Supervision Center [using BestMile’s software]. However, in this center the supervisor is not taking the control of vehicles, he is checking the service and its characteristics are well respected, as frequency of passage for example. If a vehicle meets a situation that prevents it from following its path the vehicle send[s] a signal to the Supervision Center. In this case, the Supervisor does not take the control of the vehicle, he can engage [an alternate routing scenario]. For example, if a road is blocked, the Supervisor can engage a temporary change of the path.
So there you have it: while the buses cannot be directly remote controlled like, say, a drone, they can be programmed with new navigation routes – a flight plan, to use aviation lingo — and continue to drive themselves.
This is fascinating stuff, and will mark a monumental accomplishment in the world of driverless vehicles when the buses go live next Spring. It’s one thing to have driverless cars with humans who can still take over; but to put into actual public use driverless vehicles that cannot be directly controlled … that’s a big deal.
So what happens next?
Once this initial testing phase on public roads in Sion is successful, the next phase will involve a move towards public roads (remember, the Sion routes will technically be on private roads). Says Isaac,
We are already [working] to develop our service in pedestrian areas. As you know, after the trial period, the ARMA will be operating in the city of Sion for example but we have a lot of other projects in France and abroad. [Regarding public roads, the] NAVYA ARMA can already technically drive on public roads as you can see [in the following video of ITS Bordeaux]:
Isaac is very enthusiastic when discussing the future of NAVYA and its ARMA buses, as well he should be. In the last two months alone, they have become the first company in the world to release a 100% driverless autonomous vehicle — technically, Google’s Self-Driving Car (SDC) hasn’t been “released” for commercial use, and is still undergoing testing — that can be driven on roads with no input from a driver, either on-board or remote.
But talking with Isaac, you get the sense there’s much more to all this than merely being first in the world with some cool new technology; that it’s not merely about having autonomous vehicles, but rather because society’s needs mandate it:
We develop today the vehicle of the future to improve transportation solutions for sure, but we are doing it especially as well because the societal urbanization of the world society imposes it. Today, we have to begin reinventing mobility in cities and closed circuit areas … to improve our future daily life.
We’ll definitely keep in touch with NAVYA as they forge ahead with their ARMA buses and keep you posted with the latest developments.
Meanwhile, enjoy the photo gallery below and let us know what you think in the comments! And for more information, photos, and videos, be sure to visit NAVYA’s website.