Software steers trams off the rails

2019-03-06 09:19:13

By Will Knight Electric trams that rely on computers rather than tracks for steering are being tested in the Dutch city of Eindhoven and in Las Vegas, in the US. The public transport vehicles depend on two different technologies to create “virtual tracks” that guide buses around busy streets without a driver having to touch the wheel. Anton Jos Klostermann, an engineer behind the Dutch project, says that automatic steering systems such as these allow cities to implement tram-like schemes at a fraction of the cost. He says that trams increase the efficiency of public transport dramatically because they require less road space than a bus, have a higher average speed, are more comfortable, more punctual and are more reliable. “It has all the benefits of light rail, but is much cheaper,” he says. “We see it as a completely different type of transportation.” The prototype Dutch vehicle, called Phileas, has an onboard computer guidance system pre-programmed with the bus route. Magnets embedded in the road’s surface are detected by sensors under the bus to ensure that it is on the right track. This is a safety measure. In principle the bus can follow the pre-programmed track without the magnets. If it is even two centimetres out, the on-board computer makes an adjustment to the bus’s steering. The guidance technology was designed by Dutch companies Frog Navigation Systems and APTS. Another driver-free vehicle is preparing to make its debut in Las Vegas. Known as Civis, the bus uses on-board cameras to track a line painted on the road. The Regional Transportation Commission of Southern Nevada has bought 10 of the French-built vehicles, which will start ferrying passengers around the city in 2003. The system looks 100 feet ahead of the bus to plot the its course. According to its creators, the system works reliably even if two thirds of the line is obscured by dirt on the road. The system was developed by the company Irisbus. Manufacturers of both systems say they are aware of possible public concern over computerised drivers. Neither system is entirely autonomous, relying on a human driver to regulate the vehicle’s speed and take over steering should the on-board system malfunction. Despite reassurances, not everyone is comfortable with the idea of automatic steering systems, however. “We’re not convinced about safety,” says Mark Reddie, principal planner for the Phoenix Public Transit Department,