Autonomous HEAT minibus starts passenger service

E-shuttle bus on roads in HafenCity - carpooling per app possible
26 October 2020
HEAT Passenger Services

The Hamburg Autonomous Electric Transport (HEAT) began transporting passengers Friday (October 23, 2020) marking the first operation of such a passenger bus in inner-city streets and at a speed of up to 25 km/h. Anjes Tjarks, Senator for Transport and Mobility Transition, and Henrik Falk, Chair of Hochbahn, were the first passengers to board the five-metre-long minibus. Residents interested in the minibus have until November 30, 2020 to register per app for travel. The project is part of the city's Intelligent Transport Systems (ITS) strategy to be presented at the ITS World Congress in Hamburg from October 11-21, 2021.

Driving autonomously in urban environment

Tjarks remarked: "The project shows how modern mobility is conceived in Hamburg and especially with regard to the elevated railway. Implementing autonomous driving in the middle of an urban environment with cyclists and pedestrians is challenging and unique in this form worldwide. We want to be at the forefront of autonomous driving worldwide by the time the ITS World Congress begins," Tjarks added.

Wider field of vision - minibus and masts with sensors

The minibus travels along a one-kilometre long section of test track in HafenCity. The infrastructure, developed by SIEMENS and set up by the Hamburg Verkehrsanlagen (HHVA), provides more data about occurrences on the road. It warns the shuttle about vehicles, cyclists or passers-by who are outside its sensors and cameras' field of vision. This is particularly important when objects in an intersection cannot be seen or are obscured by a larger vehicle. This information allows the shuttle to go through traffic lights without the vehicle attendant having to take action. The use of additional masts with sensors extends the shuttle's field of vision and enables higher speed and anticipatory driving. 

The vehicle also uses a HD map of the current route provided by the City of Hamburg, which is accurate to within a few centimetres. All the information is superimposed to determine the vehicle's position and any deviations from the optimal position. During the current phase, the vehicle receives orders including the stops to be served from Hochbahn's control centre.

Book a test run per app

Residents of Hamburg can register per app to travel on the autonomous shuttle. Masks must be worn to comply with corona regulations. Only three passengers can travel at the same time in addition to the bus conductor and technician. After completing the test passenger operation, the vehicle will be evaluated and further developed over the winter before it returns to Hamburg in spring 2021 for the next phase of passenger runs.

Opportunities and challenges of autonomous driving

Commenting on "this leap forward in development", Falk said: "Hamburg has just been named Germany's smartest city in the field of mobility by Bitkom - HEAT's networked approach is a perfect match.  Now that we can put the shuttle into operation, we are taking a step closer to the idea behind the research project: an autonomous minibus as a new offer wherever large vehicles are not practical, for instance, in daytime peripheral locations and suburbs."

However, the legal framework for driving without a vehicle attendant does not yet meet “SAE Level 4 Autonomous Driving” requirements and remains one of the biggest hurdles. This makes for complex approval procedures that hinge largely on regulatory requirements. 

HafenCity as a transport laboratory

The choice of HafenCity for the test run is by no means coincidental. A Europe-wide smart mobility concept is setting new standards in Baakenhafen and Elbbrücken and promoting e-mobility and car sharing starting in private underground car parks. Many other means of transport such as StadtRad, Bike & Ride and HVV switch points S-Bahn, U-Bahn and bus are also available there. 

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