Self-driving, fully electric, free of charge: Five autonomous buses are to make the small town of Monheim am Rhein a pioneer of the mobility revolution. It almost sounds too good to be true - and at first it only works to a limited extent.
Monheim am Rhein (dpa) - Snow is one of those things that self-driving buses have never been able to handle.
And so it is an unfortunate coincidence for the city of Monheim am Rhein that after a mild winter, of all things, on Ash Wednesday, when the newly manned autonomous e-bus fleet is scheduled to start operating, thick, wet, white flakes fall from the sky. "The sensors don't like that at all," explains plant manager Axel Bergweiler. "We had to put off the first passengers."
Not entirely without human help
Instead of shortly before 7:00 a.m., the first regular journey starts at 10:21 a.m. from Monheim bus station. Fully electric and powered by green electricity, the small bus sets off towards the old town. The system accelerates and steers itself thanks to sensors and GPS, but it still cannot do without human help. The "operator" Thomas, who does not want to read his last name in the newspaper, has to be careful and give the green light at intersections and stops. Theoretically, there is space for up to twelve people in the vehicle, but in the morning Thomas is alone on the road. "There's nothing going on in the old town today. We don't want to go there," a woman calls to him from a stop.
So the operator, who usually turns through Monheim as a normal bus driver, has time to get used to his new role. "It's pretty strange," he says, because he suddenly has to give up a lot more control over the technology. A kind of remote control hangs around his neck, and the automatic control can also be controlled via a gear lever on the side. "I was already curious. You don't have the opportunity to drive such a vehicle anywhere else."
At least almost nowhere. At a few other locations in Germany, largely self-driving buses are already in use or are being tested. In Bad Birnbach in Bavaria, they bring passengers in a very rural area to the train station at regular intervals along a country road. In summer there will be a small yellow bus in Berlin again, which will take people to the lake in the Tegel district. On private company premises, the buses are already partially fully automated, but so far someone has been needed in road traffic who can brake in case of doubt. Monheim still attributes a pioneering role to itself. "Often, the buses do not run in flowing traffic, they are just single ones or they are used more irregularly," says a spokeswoman.
Careful and slow
Braking on time is not necessarily what is lacking in autonomous vehicles. The vehicles of the French manufacturer EasyMile used in Monheim even put the brakes on when only someone parked overhanging or overhauled relatively close. In the United States, test operation of the EasyMile buses was just stopped by the NHTSA traffic authorities after a passenger slipped from their seat during a sudden braking maneuver at a speed of 11.4 kilometers per hour.
"I'll switch to manual mode, otherwise we'll be here forever," says operator Thomas in Monheim on the premiere trip. It shouldn't be the only time.
Thomas does not expect that many Monheimers will use the bus for their way to work. In rush hour traffic, the 16 kilometers per hour that the bus can cover is too slow for many - the two-kilometer journey takes around half an hour. "I would never have imagined that the street cleaning would overtake me one day," murmurs Thomas, as an orange sweeper pulls past. So far, he is not worried that autonomous companions could make his job superfluous. "I think I'm retired by then."
Pioneers in narrow streets and on-demand solutions
"Everything that pioneers make possible is good and important," says mobility expert Andreas Knie, who researches innovative transport concepts at the Berlin Science Center for Social Research. "There are very few vendors that have the first operational vehicles that have attempted to walk." These were very optimistic. "They are able to drive where classic buses cannot get to." It is the same in the small town on the Rhine: the streets on the route would not be suitable for normal buses. The five minibuses, which now connect the bus station and the old town every 15 minutes, fit through.
Instead of regular operation, Knie advocates on-demand solutions, such as those being tested in Schleswig-Holstein - vehicles that passengers can request according to their needs and individual wishes. "The idea that I had to go to a stop and was let out at a stop was a good idea in front of the car," says the researcher. "Not today - because we know it differently. To contain the private car, other solutions are needed."
It remains to be seen whether a route like the one in Monheim, which is likely to be used by most passengers in their leisure time rather than on the way to work, will be popular over time. Student Julian Laszkowski, who lives right on the track, is one of the first to finally get on the bus on Wednesday. "I think it's good. But I'm curious how long it will stay." After all, there had been an accident. The 18-year-old alludes to Wusterhausen in Brandenburg, where an autonomous bus collided with a car on its first trip last July.
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