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Look, no hands! My journey with Seoul’s self-driving bus

Vaseline 1 month ago

There is a moment on bus A21, around midnight, when the man in the driver’s seat presses a small red button on his dashboard.

He smiles, then lets go of the wheel and takes his feet off the pedals. The vehicle continues to glide through the streets of the South Korean capital Seoul, taking turns and stopping at traffic lights. No one on board seems to notice.

“One day, all buses in Seoul will be self-driving,” said Park Kang-uk, head of operations at SUM (Smart Your Mobility).

His company has spent the past four years developing the city’s new self-driving night bus, which authorities say is the first of its kind in the world. These types of buses and cars are known as autonomous vehicles or AVs.

“Fewer and fewer people want to ride the bus, especially at night,” Park said. “This is the perfect solution to help fill that void.”

The quiet night-time roads are also the ideal place to test the technology, which is still far from perfect.

There are some safety measures on board. For example, passengers must be seated and wear a seat belt at all times.

There is also someone in the driver’s seat, who can take control of the bus if something goes wrong. Soon, Mr Park emphasizes, this will no longer be necessary.

The journey is largely smooth. It took us past the glowing shopfronts of the city center and then into the capital’s more dimly lit residential areas, stopping about twenty times along the way.

At first, watching the steering wheel move on its own and seeing the bus ghost move left and right accordingly is enough to fill you with dread. But soon that feeling passes.

That said, there are a few times when the driver needs to take the wheel and hit the brakes. These sudden jolts remind us that there are human drivers on the road and that the artificial intelligence (AI) driving the bus is not prepared for every eventuality.

However, most passengers were quite relaxed. “I was excited to try this,” said one student on the way home from college. “The fact that it is a night bus also means it can reduce the burden on drivers.”

“I had no idea this was a driverless bus!” said a woman who had just finished work. “You really wouldn’t know.”

Another student from the Netherlands seemed a little less convinced: “I was a little nervous when I went on board. It reassured me somewhat.”

The US-based Society of Automotive Engineers categorizes AVs from levels 1 to 5.

Level 1, the most basic, covers vehicles with features such as cruise control, while Level 5 is a fully automated vehicle that can operate under any conditions and in any situation. These do not currently exist.

Seoul’s new night bus is a Level 3 vehicle, meaning human intervention is required in certain situations.

The driver of bus A21 demonstrates the hands-free functionality.The driver of bus A21 demonstrates the hands-free functionality.

The driver of the A21 bus demonstrates the hands-free functions (BBC)

The most advanced AVs in use today are in China and the United States; passengers can take a Level 4 taxi in Beijing and parts of California and Arizona. These cars do not have a safety driver, but must stick to certain roads and routes.

How far self-driving technology can actually advance is up for debate. Without a complete overhaul of the way our cities function, some experts doubt whether truly autonomous car travel is possible.

“The view that autonomous cars are our future is pure science fiction,” says Graham Currie, professor of public transport at Monash University in Melbourne.

“It’s nonsense, to be honest. On the streets we have dogs, we have children, we have weather, we have other vehicles. Technology hasn’t solved all that yet and it may never do so.”

According to Professor Currie, governments are particularly interested in the possibilities of autonomous public transport, because the majority of the cost of a bus route consists of the driver’s salary. This has obviously caused some concern among bus drivers.

The union representing Seoul’s 18,000 bus drivers told the BBC that the city government never contacted them about its plans for an autonomous future.

“Self-driving should not completely replace human labor,” said Yoo Jae-ho, secretary general of the Seoul City Bus Union. “Right now I don’t think that’s even possible; it’s too dangerous.”

“If self-driving technology is ready and can one day be implemented, it should be accompanied by retraining and support programs to rehire bus drivers and maintenance staff.”

South Korean authorities plan to invest more than $1 billion (£810 million) in projects to develop autonomous driving technologies and build associated infrastructure by 2027.

China is also making progress when it comes to self-driving vehicles. Last week, taxi company Didi announced a partnership with state-owned electric vehicle manufacturer GAC Aion to mass-produce a fleet of Level 4 robotaxis.

Tesla boss Elon Musk said earlier this month that his electric car maker would unveil its own robotaxi in August.

However, Professor Currie argues that investment in private AVs does little to solve the real transport problems facing cities.

“I don’t want to be negative. I really believe it’s worth experimenting with new systems,” he said. “But I find myself being sceptical.”

“If thousands of autonomous cars drive through an often empty city, our roads will only become busier – not less.”

Back on the A21 we reach the end of the line. The man behind the wheel, an ex-bus driver in his sixties, waves goodbye to me. Before I get out, I ask him what he thinks of the new technology.

“It’s easy for me to say, but I love it,” he laughs. “Driving a bus at night is a tough job. I don’t think many people would miss it.”

Additional reporting by Hosu Lee