German supplier Schaeffler, along with the Dutch VDL Groep and Mobileye, present autonomous electric shuttle concept at IAA Mobility in Munich.
The nine-seat shuttle bus with Level 4 autonomous systems is designed to cover just over 200 miles per day, with recharges.
Level 4 shuttle buses designed for several passengers are seen by some as offering a better business case than robotaxis, due to the current expense of autonomous hardware and running costs.
Robotaxis may have conquered San Francisco, with a few fender benders here and there as well as the threat of the Cone of Shame. But they're by no means the only SAE Level 4 vehicles we could see on our roads in the near future.
A number of companies, including Cruise, are now working on autonomous shuttles that can carry four or more passengers at once. The shuttles are planned to run along a fixed or a constantly changing route, depending on passengers' needs, and able to pick up new passengers when summoned via app. At least that's the plan. Volkswagen has a similar shuttle in the works, with the ID. Buzz set to take to the streets of Germany in 2024 under the automaker's MOIA unit.
But these aren't the only companies betting on Level 4 technology to transform public transit.
German supplier Schaeffler, along with Holland's VDL Groep, are working on their own autonomous electric shuttle, with plans to roll out the first working examples in 2025. And the two have teamed up with Mobileye, which is set to provide the autonomous driving tech for the shuttle, in plans announced just ahead of the IAA Mobility show in Munich.
Schaeffler, which produces components for electrified powertrains, plans to provide the chassis complete with a battery and steer-by-wire system, while VDL Groep is expected to develop the bus body systems. Mobileye, meanwhile, will provide the autonomous hardware and software, which will include lidar, radar, and cameras necessary for Level 4 driving.
The shuttle bus itself is designed to have a range of 62 miles on a single charge, but will be able to cover 217 miles a day, suggesting a relatively small battery with DC fast-charging capability. The top speed will be only 43 mph, which is perhaps all that's needed for cities, with nine seats inside. With an overall length of 16.4 feet, the shuttle bus will feature two large doors and will be designed to be wheelchair accessible.
"The self-driving shuttles can be ordered by consumers via an app, and are set to change public transport over the next several years," Shaeffler and VDL Groep said. "Demand for self-driving shuttle services is expected to take off in the coming years, especially in many major cities in Europe, North America, and parts of Asia by the end of this century."
That demand remains to be proven, we should note, until the costs of Level 4 vehicles approach those of ride-hailing apps with human drivers.
If one thing is clear about this view of urban mobility so far, it's the fact that different developers have largely figured out what these buses will look like, with the major differences at the moment being passenger capacity and seating layout. This is what autonomous shuttle concepts looked like on the drawing boards two decades ago, and this is what prototypes that we already experienced half a decade ago looked like as well.
In that time Level 4 autonomous tech—one of the two crucial pieces of the puzzle—has seen the most development, moving from jerky driving in simulated urban environments to actually navigating the streets of major cities with no one behind the wheel.
University campuses and convention centers, meanwhile, have typically served as the proving grounds for experimental vehicles, with public roads envisioned as the next stage.
But the technology needed for Level 4, it appears, has largely been solved, even though some gaps in driving decision-making remain, especially when it comes to construction zones, emergency vehicles, and some more complex traffic patterns.
Of course, the other piece of the puzzle, at least as it concerns smaller robotaxis, has always been profitable operations. This is perhaps where autonomous shuttles will offer an advantage, allowing for shared rides by a small number of passengers.
After all, if the hardware necessary for one vehicle with Level 4 autonomous tech is a fixed cost, then carrying more passengers at a given time will allow the shuttle bus operator to bill more people at once, with the bus automatically figuring out its own route to drop everyone off at their destinations, like a school bus with a constantly changing route.
One tradeoff is that robotaxis can be based on existing vehicles, like the Chevy Bolt, while autonomous shuttle buses are clean-sheet designs and carry greater development and manufacturing costs.
Just where we'll see such vehicles first remains an open question. Germany has already greenlit Level 4 autonomy on its public roads, Schaeffler and VDL Groep say, while similar decisions in the US are being made on a city, county, and state basis, with a few other permits required.
GM's Cruise has a smaller shuttle in the works with a lower passenger capacity, but the hope is the same—carrying several passengers at once along a geofenced but variable route.
Will we see autonomous shuttles debut on US roads in this decade in large numbers, or is this a process that will take longer? Let us know what you think in the comments below.