In the face of the coronavirus epidemic, Finland, along with the rest of the world, is facing entirely new circumstances. To slow the spread of the virus and to ease the strain on our health care system, social interactions are being kept to a minimum.
That’s why Sensible 4 is adjusting our plans for this spring’s FABULOS autonomous driving pilot — one of the main self-driving events for us this year.
The European FABULOS autonomous driving pilot will take place in Helsinki’s Pasila region this spring. Three self-driving vehicles will take to the roads, including GACHA, a shared driverless shuttle bus built by Sensible 4 and designed by MUJI from Japan.
Back in February, the plan was to pick up passengers on a route shown in the Journey planner public transport service. The intent was to integrate the autonomous driving pilot into the HSL Helsinki Public Transport system. But, given the new circumstances, the pilot will now be run as a closed experiment, meaning that the vehicles will not be picking up any passengers, in order to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
Three driverless vehicles working closely together
Even in this limited form, the FABULOS program is well suited for testing new technologies and new ways of working.
In prior experiments, GACHA has been driving autonomously along a predefined route under the watchful eye of a human driver, with no particular connection to the outside world. But if we want small, autonomous buses to operate in our public transport system, they must be smarter. The most significant benefits of flexible, autonomous transportation are attained when vehicles can adapt to passenger needs when moving from one stop to another.
The FABULOS pilot is taking another step towards autonomous, demand-based transportation. Three vehicles will take to the roads: The autonomous shuttle bus GACHA, a minibus by the Chinese manufacturer Dongfeng, and a small Renault Twizy, which is called “Juto”. The last two are mass-produced vehicles retrofitted with Sensible 4’s autonomous technology, the AD kit. They are all electric vehicles.
GACHA and the minibus would be capable of picking up passengers, while “Juto” is there for testing purposes only. While the vehicles will be driving autonomously, they each have a human driver ready to take over if needed to ensure traffic safety.
Testing the Shotl on-demand mobile app
There are two types of driving each day: continuous driving and driving based on simulated demand. Demand-based transportation is tested with an application created by the Spanish company Shotl. In the pilot, Sensible 4 test users book a ride to their stop, modelling the transportation needs of actual passengers. If necessary, a smartphone can be placed in the autonomous vehicle, allowing the vehicle to drive with only the emergency driver present. This will keep social interaction to a minimum.
Controlling everything remotely
The vehicles connect to a remote operations centre — originally planned to be set up at the Traffic Management Finland premises in Pasila, which would have enabled remote operations in the same place where the capital region traffic system is managed.
In the current situation, the operations centre can be set up anywhere where there is a suitable internet connection available. The remote operations centre only requires one operator present, and another operator can take over at another site at the end of each shift.
The remote operation uses SoftBank Drive system and a remote operations application developed by Sensible 4.
As the corona epidemic winds down, the pilot may be opened for the general public later in the spring or the summer. We will notify you of any developments separately. All the latest information about the Pasila traffic experiment are published on this blog and on the Sensible 4 Twitter account.
Pasila — A great fit for autonomous driving
The Pasila region is located in northern-central Helsinki, with an impressive array of various kinds of office and apartment buildings built in the area in the 1970s. In the years that followed, Pasila saw Finland’s largest convention venue built in the area while becoming a central hub for Finnish TV broadcast operations with Yleisradio and commercial television and radio channels.
A unique aspect of Eastern Pasila is that traffic is divided onto two levels. The roads and streets between buildings are mainly for cars, other vehicles and trams, while a designated concrete deck above street traffic is for pedestrian and bicycle traffic. With this arrangement, Pasila has considerably fewer traffic lights and crosswalks across driving lanes than, for example, downtown Helsinki.
The main line of the Finnish railway separates Eastern and Western Pasila. A few decades ago, much of this area was a railway yard, but the completion of the Vuosaari Harbour has made it possible to repurpose the area for other use. The first part of the new Central Pasila region, the Mall of Tripla, finished construction last fall. Tripla is the largest shopping centre in Finland, and the largest in Northern Europe if measured by the area of commercial premises. More recently, Pasila has become one of the most interesting new residential areas in Helsinki, alongside Jätkäsaari and Kalasatama.
With a current population of just under 4,000, Eastern Pasila will be home to around 7,000 once the Central Pasila region is finished. The plan is to create jobs for up to 13,000 people in Central Pasila.
Route and schedule
The vehicles in the FABULOS project drive along a circular route in Eastern Pasila, going from Messukeskus to the Ratamestarinkatu–Asemapäällikönkatu roundabout and on to the Pasila station next to the Mall of Tripla, then turning north to circle back to Messukeskus.
The pilot program will start in mid-April and continue through May and June — every day from 8:30 in the morning to 3:30 in the afternoon.
What is FABULOS?
FABULOS is a multi-year project funded by the EU, studying public transport based on autonomous vehicles in several European cities. It’s designed to study the validity of autonomous buses as part of a public transport system, collecting experiences along the way.
Along with Sensible 4, the project includes several participants across the European continent. The FABULOS project in Finland is coordinated by Forum Virium, which is owned by the city of Helsinki.
The ability to operate in all weather conditions is unique to the Sensible 4 technology. Snow, for example, is typically a problem for autonomous vehicles as it blinds the sensors. In the Sensible 4 solution, the sensors are the same, but the software used for processing the data is exceptional. It’s particularly good at eliminating noise – such as snow on the ground or fog in the air – while remaining light on processing power required. Sensible 4’s technology enables autonomous driving even when driving conditions are bad.