Helsinki, Finland, is running a self-driving bus as part of an effort to reduce the use of cars. The city has been at the forefront of innovation in public transportation, and the self-driving bus project takes this innovation to a new level. Most driverless bus programs have been limited to private, controlled settings, such as college campuses or large industrial plants. Helsinki is among the first cities to use these “autonomous buses” on public roads with real traffic. A similar project in Switzerland was suspended for two weeks after a minor accident, after operating for several months.

The 1.2 million-dollar, two-year Helsinki project, called Sohjoa, is a collaboration between government agencies in Finland and the European Union. It is part of a larger movement there to reduce traffic and greenhouse gas emissions by the reducing the use of cars. The buses accommodate as many as 12 passengers, sitting or standing.

“A good possible outcome is that less and less people will own personal vehicles in the cities because they really don’t need them anymore,” according to Harri Santamala, who is in charge of coordinating the project. He also directs a “smart mobility” program at Helsinki Metropolia University of Applied Sciences.

The project began in September, with a quarter mile route with no turns, in Helsinki’s Hernesaari district, between two popular commercial areas.

“We chose this as a first route because we can study a huge amount of different traffic issues depending on the time of day,” according to Santamala.

The small buses take a simpler approach than the self-driving cars under development by Google, Uber, and other companies. These cars aim to be able to travel almost anywhere by using a vast database of information in combination with information from sensors about their immediate surroundings. Helsinki’s buses, on the other hand, “learn” a route by having an operator use steering and acceleration controls, after which the route is fine-tuned with software. These buses cannot deviate from the planned route, until another route is “learned” from an operator.

So far, the buses move at very slow speeds for safety reasons. Though designed to travel at up to 25 km per hour, the Helsinki project runs the buses at half that speed. The project also limits lateral movement – in the event of a double parked car or other obstacle, the bus waits for it to move, or for an operator to steer around the problem.

So far, these limitations restrict the bus to short routes. However, with continued experimentation, these buses could contribute the goal of making cars unnecessary for many Helsinki residents.

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