Most minibus AVs carry fewer than 25 passengers.
Most minibus AVs carry fewer than 25 passengers.
( Source: zydeaosika | / Pexels)

SHARED MOBILITY The first vehicles to be fully autonomous may be buses, not cars

| Author / Editor: Seth Lambert / Florian Richert

While many followers of transportation technology have expected cars to become fully autonomous this decade, so far, it’s been shared-mobility minibuses that are actually beginning to deliver on the promise of being “self-driving.”

For almost a decade now, rapid advances in the automotive field have led both industry insiders and media outlets to predict that the era of self-driving cars would be upon us by 2020. However, despite extensive efforts by numerous carmaker OEMs and self-driving vehicle startups, automobiles that are fully autonomous (where a driver can fall asleep, for instance, and be transported to his or her destination) are proving to be elusive for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that not every pedestrian- or object-filled environment or traffic situation can be anticipated by autonomous vehicle (AV) platforms.

While the world’s carmakers continue to chase after a “just-out-of-reach” dream of Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) Level 4- or 5-functional automobiles, that vision is starting to become a mass-produced reality in a surprisingly different form: the driverless minibus.

Early “wire-guided” efforts

As long ago as 1984, companies like the Netherlands’ 2getthere foresaw the possibility of minibus-type vehicles transporting riders within highly defined (and generally traffic-free) areas, such as airports, office parks, industrial grounds, and shopping centers. In these cases, predetermined routes would never change; scheduled service times would be rigid and predictable, and passenger counts would be both limited and manageable.

2getthere developed early AVs that differed from today’s vehicles in that they utilized wire guidance—meaning that there were actual wires embedded in the ground that directed the vehicles’ movements and made sure they stayed on predefined paths. At first, 2getthere applied its technology to AVs carrying cargo, but starting in 1997, the firm began to make “last-mile” passenger shuttles for airports such as Amsterdam’s. By 2018, after a number of successful global installations, the company’s wire-guided AVs had conveyed 14 million passengers more than 100 million kilometers. In 2019, German Tier 1 parts supplier ZF purchased a controlling interest in 2getthere. The company’s shuttles will begin to operate in mixed-traffic environments in locations such as Brussels’ Zaventem Airport starting in 2021.

Common characteristics of minibus AVs

After early AV developers started refining their technology, it became apparent that AV applications could be separated by use case. Among different passenger types, there were vacationers who wanted to go on long trips (possibly with their families), there were people who wanted to go on taxi journeys across town, and then there were commuters and short-distance travelers who likely needed to make use of the same routes, day after day, often in “first-” or “last-mile” scenarios. It was this latter case where AV developers realized that shared-mobility vehicles would be the most efficient transport solution and also the one that was the least taxing to the environment. In a substantial percentage of cases, routes could be defined that were traffic-less and/or “geofenced,” and the AVs could operate at relatively low speeds. As such, the possibility of encountering unexpected pedestrians, cyclists, or other moving obstacles was limited, and even heavy weather conditions would be less of a problem than on highways or in urban environments. Thus, compared to the challenge of developing AVs that could operate on high-speed expressways and/or drive through busy intersections, the bar for this type of platform development was set relatively low.

Companies that have specifically addressed this use case with driverless minibus-style AVs include Finland’s Sensible4; Germany’s IAV; France’s Milla, Navya, and EasyMile SAS; Russia’s KamAZ; Estonia’s Auve Tech; the U.S.’s Cruise (a subsidiary of General Motors) and Local Motors; Singapore’s Moovita and ST Engineering; Japan’s Daihatsu, Toyota, Hino Motors (in conjunction with startup Advanced Smart Mobility), Aisin, and ZMP; China’s King Long (in conjunction with search-engine giant Baidu), Yutong (in conjunction with AV startup UISEE), Golden Dragon, FAW Group, Dongfeng, and Human Horizons; Taiwan’s ARTC; and New Zealand’s Ohmio.

Virtually all of the vehicles from these companies have several characteristics in common—they’re fairly boxy in shape, they transport 25 people or less (typically in combinations of standing and seated passengers), they’re battery-electric-powered, they have no manual controls whatsoever (no steering wheel, brake pedal, accelerator pedal, or any other driver controls), they’re designed to operate at low speeds and have a limited range, and they can be summoned and communicated with remotely, generally via mobile apps.

Minibus AVs from Finland and Germany

In Finland, AV firm Sensible4 developed the Gacha, an electric, LiDAR-equipped, 16-passenger (10 seated and six standing), all-weather self-driving minibus AV, in conjunction with Japanese retailer Muji, which designed the vehicle’s body. After an initial testing collaboration, Sensible4 integrated the Dispatcher fleet-management and monitoring platform from the SB Drive division of Japanese technology and investment firm SoftBank. Sensible4 is eager to work with SB Drive/SoftBank on promoting the Gacha in Japan (and eventually China) after successfully piloting it in the Pasila residential/commercial area of Helsinki. Both SB Drive/SoftBank and Sensible4 have agreed to cooperate on the development of future minibus AVs.

In Berlin, Germany, IAV Automotive Engineering (which is majority-owned by Volkswagen) has been working on automated driving since 1995. In 2018, IAV demonstrated a Lidar-equipped, electric 16-passenger (10 seated, six standing), minibus AV, capable of speeds up to 50 kph. The minibus was deployed in Hamburg in early 2019 via the Hamburg Electric Autonomous Transportation (HEAT) coalition, which includes partners Siemens; Hamburger Hochbahn AG; the Institut für Klimaschutz, Energie, und Mobilität (IKEM); the Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt (DLR); and the Hamburger Behörde für Wissenschaft, Verkehr und Innovation (BWI). Initially, the HEAT minibus AV traveled along a 1.8-kilometer route in Hamburg, serving nine bus stops, with a vehicle attendant on board for safety. IAV anticipates that attendant-less operation of the minibus will be demonstrated by the time of the Intelligent Transport Systems (ITS) World Congress, which is scheduled to take place in Hamburg in 2021.

Minibus AVs from France

Based in the suburbs of Paris, AV startup Milla introduced its electric Mobility Pod minibus AV at the 2019 CES in Las Vegas. The LiDAR- and vehicle-to-everything (V2X)-equipped driverless six-passenger minibus has a maximum speed of 30 kph. It also features platooning and remote monitoring/emergency intervention capabilities and, most notably of all, carries a mass-production list price of less than USD$4,000 per unit. Milla first piloted the Mobility Pod in a deployment in Vélizy-Villacoublay, France in 2019. At CES, Milla founder Frédéric Mathis (who previously led AV efforts at French carmaker Renault) said that his company would like to produce 1,000 units of the Mobility Pod by 2022.

France’s Navya and EasyMile SAS were both early developers of AVs, having each started up in 2014. Navya’s electric Autonom minibus AV holds 15 passengers (11 seated and four standing), is equipped with LiDAR, and is designed to operate at a maximum speed of 25 kph in mixed traffic. Its exterior can also be cosmetically customized for individual customers.

EasyMile’s electric EZ10 minibus AV holds 12 passengers (six seated and six standing) and is also designed to operate at a maximum speed of 25 kph in mixed traffic. So far, the EZ10 has had more global deployments (more than 200) than the Navya Autonom (which has at least 125, including a high-profile Las Vegas deployment for American car club AAA). Both AVs have sold more units than any other minibus model except for those from Chinese manufacturers King Long, Yutong, Golden Dragon, and Dongfeng (see below).

Minibus AVs from Russia and Estonia

Majority-state-owned automaker JSC KamAZ is the largest producer of trucks in Russia (it’s also 15-percent owned by Germany’s Daimler). In conjunction with state automotive research institute NAMI and Russian search-engine company Yandex, JSC KamAZ introduced the 12-passenger (six seated and six standing) electric SHATL 1221 minibus AV at the 2016 Moscow International Automobile Salon. Subsequent versions of the SHATL 1221 were equipped with AI, 5G, and voice-recognition. The SHATL 1221 has a range of 120 kilometers and is designed to operate at speeds up to 40 kph on dedicated, traffic-free, fixed routes.

Estonia’s Auve Tech, an AV startup based in Tallinn, has developed the ISEAUTO, an eight-passenger electric minibus AV running on the Japanese Autoware open AV platform. Developed in conjunction with researchers at Tallinn Technical University, the ISEAUTO has a maximum cruising speed of 25 kph, can operate for eight hours on a single battery charge, and is equipped with an electric wheelchair ramp. While the ISEAUTO is battery-electric-powered, Auve Tech’s next minibus AV—being co-developed by engineers at Estonia’s University of Tartu and energy storage firm Skeleton Technologies—will be hydrogen fuel cell-powered; it’s expected to be unveiled sometime in 2021.

It should be noted that the European Union chose Auve Tech, Navya, and Sensible4 minibus AVs for testing as part of the EU’s FABULOS multi-year autonomous bus study program.

Minibus AVs from the United States

At the 2020 Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, the U.S.’s Cruise announced its electric Origin minibus AV, developed over a three-year period in conjunction with parent firm General Motors and investor Honda. The shared-mobility Origin vehicle is designed for six seated passengers and has a range of 650 kilometers. It makes use of GM’s third-generation electric vehicle (EV) platform and new Ultium batteries. Cruise claims each Origin is designed to last for more than a million miles of service. Cruise originally wanted to operate a robotaxi service in its hometown of San Francisco starting in 2020 using Origin AVs, but this plan has been pushed back. In the meantime, Honda and GM are working together to put the Origin into production in early 2022.

In 2016 in Arizona, low-volume specialty car manufacturer Local Motors showed off the Olli, a 3D-printed, partially recyclable electric minibus AV. Seating 12 passengers and designed for operation at speeds up to 40 kph, the Olli is equipped with IBM Watson Internet of Things (IoT) technology that allows voice control and personalization. So far, the Olli has been deployed in multiple shuttle uses in the United States, Saudi Arabia, Italy, Germany, Australia, and South Korea, with additional deployments under discussion for the U.S. and Denmark.

Minibus AVs from Singapore

In Singapore, startup Moovita sells two minibus AVs—the eight-passenger electric miniP, designed for speeds up to 40 kph and an operating time of five hours on a single battery charge, and the 12-passenger electric miniB, also designed for speeds up to 40 kph and an operating time of five hours on a single charge. Moovita has customers for its minibuses in the hotel, hospitality, and commercial and residential real estate industries.

Singapore defense contractor ST Engineering’s ST Kinetics land systems division is working with China’s BYD, a bus and minibus OEM, to make an autonomous version of BYD’s K6 20-passenger (10 seated and 10 standing) electric minibus AV. The ST Engineering STROBO 7 will have a maximum speed of 50 kph and a range of 150 kilometers. It will also be equipped with 5G connectivity and vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) communications, enabling platooning. The handicapped-friendly minibus can be summoned with a mobile app and can navigate with or without the use of GPS. The first deployment of the STROBO 7 will be as an on-demand shared-mobility vehicle in Singapore’s Punggol, Tengah, and Jurong Innovation districts. Both ST Engineering and BYD have their eyes set on international markets for future deployments of the STROBO 7.

Minibus AVs from Japan’s Daihatsu and Toyota

In Japan, quite a number of firms have introduced minibus AV prototypes, with a number aiming for near-future production. At the 2019 Tokyo Motor Show, Toyota subsidiary Daihatsu showed off its concept electric Ico Ico “public transporter” minibus AV, which is designed to carry six passengers, including wheelchair users (the Ico Ico comes with a retractable wheelchair ramp). The Ico Ico also includes the Nipote, a pet-sized guidance/companion “care robot” designed to “provide assistance for a mobility lifestyle” according to the company. Daihatsu did not reveal details of the Ico Ico’s ideal operating speed or range, and it’s unknown if the minibus AV will actually go into production (although Daihatsu has had longstanding interest in elderly- and shared-mobility vehicle markets).

Daihatsu parent Toyota, however, has been much more ambitious and forthcoming about its plans for minibus AVs. At the 2018 CES in Las Vegas, the company showed off the first version of its boxy e-Palette, a modular electric AV designed for conversion for multiple uses. As a minibus, it can transport 20 passengers (or four wheelchair users and seven standing passengers), is designed to operate at 20 kph, and has a range of 150 kilometers. But the e-Palette can also quickly convert to a delivery vehicle or even an unmanned mobile retail store. At the 2019 Tokyo Motor Show, Toyota showed off a newer version of the e-Palette, specially designed to operate as a mobility shuttle for athletes at the 2020 Sumer Olympic and Paralympic Games in Tokyo (which have been postponed until 2021).

A few months later, Toyota rolled out its vision for what it calls the Woven City—a planned smart city for an initial 2,000 residents to be built from scratch at the base of Japan’s Mount Fuji, that will be serviced exclusively by AVs, many of which will be e-Palettes. Clearly, Toyota is very excited about this AV, and the e-Palette has also been discussed as the primary vehicle for newly formed Japanese AV service consortium MONET Technologies, which claims as members and investors Toyota, Daihatsu, Honda, Hino Motors, and SoftBank/SB Drive.

(It’s worth noting that France’s Renault, which owns a controlling interest in Japanese carmaker Nissan, has shown a concept minibus AV, the EZ-PRO, which has very similar convertible characteristics to those of the Toyota e-Palette. But while Toyota has committed to actual production of the e-Palette, Renault has stressed the EZ-PRO is a part of a “concept” line of AVs that may or may not see the light of day by 2030.)

Minibus AVs from Advanced Smart Mobility, Aisin, and ZMP

Japan’s Advanced Smart Mobility AV startup has worked with both Hino Motors and SB Drive on minibus AVs. Specifically, it modified Hino Motors’ 27-passenger (16 seated and 11 standing) Poncho minibus EV and Liesse 26-passenger (17 seated and nine standing) minibuses to add autonomous driving capabilities. The buses were tested at the University of Tokyo’s Kashiwa campus. However, so far, Advanced Smart Mobility has not tested SAE Level 3, 4, or 5 functionality.

At the 2020 CES in Las Vegas, Japanese Tier 1 auto supplier Aisin (which is majority-owned by Toyota) unveiled its AI-enhanced electric C20 concept driverless minibus AV. The C20 features remote passenger monitoring with face recognition, cabin climate control, and an electric extensible ramp for wheelchair users and passengers with strollers. There’s also V2X communication capabilities that drive localized internal and external display advertising and deliver traffic and weather data for plotting efficient route navigation.

Japanese AV firm ZMP introduced its electric RoboCar Minibus AV in 2018. Built using an electric minibus from Chinese OEM Ankai, the 11-passenger Robocar Minibus was originally designed for operation in geofenced areas at airports. The LiDAR-equipped Minibus is capable of being remotely controlled and monitored, or it can even be driven manually (the vehicle incorporates a driver’s seat and steering, brake, and accelerator controls). The Minibus has a top speed of 69 kph and a range of 60 to 80 kilometers on a single battery charge. Running off ZMP’s IZAC AV platform, the Minibus is aimed at shared- and elderly-mobility use applications, as well as general AV R&D testing.

Minibus AVs from China

Like Japan, China has a number of companies that have developed minibus AVs. Traditional bus manufacturers King Long and Yutong have competing minibus vehicles that were developed in conjunction with other companies. King Long worked with Chinese search-engine firm Baidu to develop the latter company’s Apollo AV platform for King Long’s Apolong 2.0 minibus. The electric Apolong 2.0 is designed for 14 passengers (eight seated and six standing) and operation at speeds between 20 and 40 kph. Its range on a single battery charge is at least 130 kilometers. In addition to its internal Apollo platform, the Apolong 2.0 is equipped with Baidu’s DuerOS for infotainment and productivity apps.

For bus manufacturer Yutong, Beijing-based startup UISEE was able to provide an AV platform for Yutong’s L4 “Xiaoyu” minibus the companies co-developed. Like the Apolong 2.0, the electric Xiaoyu also is designed for 14 passengers (eight seated and six standing). Its speed averages 20 kph, and its range on a single battery charge is 200 kilometers. Both the Xiaoyu and the Apolong 2.0 have been put into production and service in China, with both vehicles occasionally appearing together at the same events, such as the Boao Forum for Asia in China’s Hainan Province.

Another Chinese bus manufacturer, Golden Dragon, which is majority-owned by King Long, began research on autonomous buses in 2012. In late 2016, Golden Dragon brought out the six-meter-long, LiDAR-equipped, 24-passenger (10 seated and 14 standing) ASTAR electric driverless minibus AV, created in conjunction with British design firm David Carter Associates (DCA). Equipped with four LiDAR sensors, 14 ultrasonic sensors, two millimeter-wave radar sensors, and eight cameras, the ASTAR can travel at speeds up to 40 kph, recognize traffic lights and speed limit signs, overtake other vehicles, and park itself. While the vehicle does include a driver’s seat and navigation displays, typically they’re only used for observation purposes (however, a driver can operate the bus manually if desired). Golden Dragon obtained a license to operate the ASTAR on open roads in China in November 2018. By the following year, ASTAR minibus AVs had been driven more than 50,000 kilometers, both in Asia and in Israel, where Golden Dragon has many customers.

China’s First Auto Works (FAW) Group is a Changchun-based automaker that unveiled its 5G-equipped Hongqi electric driverless minibus AV at the Boao Forum for Asia in March 2019. The Hongqi minibus AV comes with vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2I) connectivity and an AI agent with voice recognition that can read the news and weather. Unlike many of the other minibus AVs described here, the Hongqi interacts with roadside units (RSUs) to follow a predefined route, thus giving its technology more similarity to 2getthere’s “wire-guided” approach outlined above. The Hongqi vehicle was developed in conjunction with telecom firms China Unicom, ZTE, and BroadXT/Boxin Zhilian, the latter of which is piloting the Hongqi in the Xiaoshan Information Harbor Town community in China’s Zhejiang Province.

Chinese automaker Dongfeng began development of an electric six-passenger minibus AV called the Sharing-VAN 1.0 Plus in September 2018 and showed off a prototype vehicle just six months later. Like the King Long Apolong 2.0, the Sharing-VAN 1.0 Plus makes use of Baidu’s Apollo AV platform. It also incorporates four LiDAR sensors, 16 ultrasonic sensors, 12 cameras, 5G communications, remote-control driving, and platooning capabilities. Like Toyota’s e-Palette (see above), the Sharing-VAN is designed to be convertible for other uses, such as sanitation, logistics, medical transport, security, and autonomous mobile retailing. In June 2020, Dongfeng claimed that the Sharing-VAN was China’s first SAE Level 4-capable vehicle equipped with 5G connectivity to go into factory production.

Just prior to the 2020 Las Vegas CES, Shanghai-based startup Human Horizons introduced its AI-enhanced “Smart Vehicle” driverless electric minibus AV equipped with LiDAR, face recognition, 5G WiFi, V2X, and Big Data/cloud connectivity capabilities. With a range of 300 kilometers on a single battery charge, the Smart Vehicle minibus may also become convertible to a delivery AV in the near future. Human Horizons showed videos of the Smart Vehicle integrating into the 100,000-square-meter HiPhi smart city project being built in the National Independent Innovation Demonstration Zone of Shanghai’s Zhangjiang Hi-Tech Park. The Zone will not only be a test area for the Smart Vehicle, but for Human Horizons’ roadside unit (RSU) smart road and smart city Internet of Things (IoT)/cloud services technologies. Currently, Human Horizons is running a real-world pilot using three Smart Vehicle prototypes at the park’s location. Human Horizons has plans to manufacture the Smart Vehicle at a factory run by a joint venture of Dongfeng (see above) and South Korea’s KIA Motors in China’s Jiangsu Province.

Minibus AVs from Taiwan and New Zealand

In Taiwan, the Automotive Research and Testing Center (ARTC), a research and development institute, built the Winbus, an electric 15-passenger (10 seated and five standing) driverless minibus AV that uses components from more than 20 domestic Tier 1 and Tier 2 auto suppliers. Developed via sponsorship from the Department of Industrial Technology (DoIT) within Taiwan’s Ministry of Economic Affairs (MOEA), the LiDAR-equipped Winbus has dual-axle steering and two motors for seamless forward and backward driving. The Winbus can achieve speeds up to 50 kph and has a range of 70 kilometers on a single battery charge. The Winbus went into operation in Changhua Coastal Industrial Park in the fourth quarter of 2019. In Taiwan, five major cities and nine additional dedicated sites have expressed eagerness to deploy the Winbus.

In New Zealand, AV enterprise Ohmio is a subsidiary of HMI Technologies, a developer of customized ITSes. Ohmio has three driverless minibus AVs that it sells. The LiDAR-equipped, partially enclosed Ohmio Hop is designed for between four and six passengers in indoor and outdoor uses in warm weather conditions. The 3D-printed Ohmio Lift (which Ohmio claims is the largest 3D-printed vehicle in the world) carries up to 20 passengers and, like the Toyota e-Palette and Renault EZ-PRO, is convertible for use as a goods transport/delivery AV. And finally, the Ohmio Lift XT1 is two Lift vehicles daisy-chained to one another, so passenger capacity is 40 persons rather than 20, or 20 if one of the Lift vehicles is being used for goods transport/delivery purposes. Like the FAW Group Hongqi minibus described above, the Ohmio minibuses are guided along predefined paths by local infrastructure-based devices via V2I communications. Ohmio’s largest customer so far is South Korea’s Southwest Coast Enterprise City Development Company, which has agreed to purchase 150 Ohmio minibuses for the SolaSeaDo smart city project that’s in the works in South Korea’s Jeolla South Province. Ohmio has signed an agreement to produce its minibuses in a factory in Heshan, China.

A possible minibus AV of the future

As reported by the San Jose Mercury News, prominent EV maker Tesla is understood to be working on a futuristic, 12-passenger electric minibus AV that will serve the Ontario International Airport, 70 kilometers to the east of Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) in San Bernardino County, California. Tesla is partnering with Tesla CEO Elon Musk’s other venture, The Boring Company, which will drill a 4.5-kilometer feeder tunnel route through which the minibuses will travel. The buses are envisioned to drive through the tunnel at speeds of 200 kph (running the entire length of it in one-and-a-half to two minutes) and in renderings appear to have a transparent shell. As of June 2020, the San Bernardino city council had voted unanimously to approve the Tesla/Boring Company proposal for the project as it was cheaper than alternative plans, which would have used light-rail vehicles instead.