New Flyer of America Inc., a subsidiary of NFI Group Inc. (NFI) has unveiled its Level 4 autonomous transit bus, Xcelsior AV. The bus was developed in collaboration with Robotic Research LLC which the company formed a partnership with in May 2019.
Xcelsior AV is a 40-ft. (12.2 m) bus capable of carrying 80 passengers. It combines the zero-emissions capabilities of New Flyer's Xcelsior CHARGE battery-electric propulsion technology with integrated advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS). These ADAS meet Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) Standard J3016 Level 4 for autonomous vehicles.
Level 4 vehicles are those in which unmanned operation is possible and do not require intervention by an operator when automated driving features are engaged. The automated driving system can operate the vehicle under limited conditions and will not operate unless all conditions are met.
How Xcelsior AV works
New Flyer states in its press release announcing the new bus that there are two main technologies which enable Xcelsior AV to operate autonomously. One is Robotic Research's self-driving technology called AutoDrive which the company says is "the eyes and brain" of the autonomous system as it processes the world surrounding the bus. This includes mapping the environment, making driving decisions and navigation.
Robotic Research’s AutoDrive ByWire (drive-by-wire system) is the other key technology. Considered the "hands and feet" of the transit bus, it controls most of the bus' movements including steering, braking and throttle.
New Flyer says AutoDrive ByWire includes several aspects which make autonomous operation safer:
- Visualizing the environment: the bus can visualize its current environment using sensors (such as LIDARs, radars, and cameras) that create a three-dimensional model of the world to navigate through.
- Pedestrian detection and avoidance: the bus can detect the presence of a pedestrian and adjust course to avoid.
- Vehicle detection: the bus uses 360-degree sensors to detect the presence of other vehicles, responding with course adjustment as appropriate.
- Precision docking: the bus is maneuvered precisely to allow for level boarding from the bus platform for passengers with accessibility needs.
- Vehicle-to-Vehicle (V2V): the bus has the ability to communicate directly with other vehicles, which allows safe platooning.
- Vehicle-to-Infrastructure (V2I): the bus communicates with signalized intersections or other infrastructure-based alerts, such as pedestrian and vehicle alerts (e.g. “Beacon Sense”). These features will also assist in improving bus depot safety, efficiency and space usage through features such as self-parking, fueling and cleaning.
- Day or night operation: the bus is fully capable of operating day or night, regardless of lighting or weather events, based on its defined Operational Design Domain (ODD).
- Safe and redundant system: the bus is capable of running when GPS is unavailable – responding to real-time data and events as they occur, instead of relying only on pre-mapped routes, buildings, and infrastructure.
- Performance analytics: the bus is integrated with nSight end-to-end data collection to analytics technology, lending deep insight on bus performance and its interaction with other vehicles and infrastructure through its route and operation.
"Our Xcelsior AV represents the anticipated future of safety in public transit and the latest leap forward for New Flyer. We committed to building an automated transit bus and within 5 years, we’ve delivered an industry-changing vehicle. The technology is real and it’s here,” said Chris Stoddart, President, New Flyer and MCI, in New Flyer's press release announcing the new bus. "In the future, we expect fleets of automated buses to improve road safety and with the potential to shorten commute times, increase energy efficiency, and reduce congestion. As standards and regulations are developed and implemented and automated buses are deployed across North America, we expect our Xcelsior AV to enable meaningful improvements in the public transit user experience, which will hopefully lead to increased ridership. Together with Robotic Research, we are leading clean, accessible, reliable mobility that’s safer for all."
"Autonomous technology is not only expected to increase the safety of transit, but is also anticipated to increase the throughput and utilization of vehicles. Automated buses have the potential to improve traffic patterns and reduce stop-and-go traffic, benefiting not only the users of mass transportation, but the whole infrastructure," said Alberto Lacaze, President of Robotic Research, in the New Flyer press release. "New Flyer just introduced the missing piece of a fully integrated, smart transportation solution. This vehicle unlocks a new era of Transportation as a Service, leveraging technological advancements across industries to create a safer, cleaner, more efficient, and more accessible transportation solution for the public."
Putting autonomous buses into service
New Flyer says the bus is being readied for service in North America with testing starting as early as 2022. Testing will be conducted in a program with Connecticut's Department of Transportation (CTDOT). The company says a human driver will remain at the wheel of the bus as a safety precaution.
CTDOT and New Flyer first announced their intent to test autonomous buses in 2020. The aim is to demonstrate the feasibility of using autonomous vehicles on public roadways and for public transit.
Stoddart said in an article from Forbes the fixed routes and low travel speeds of buses suit the use of autonomous technology. This is similar to the mining industry, which has been utilizing various forms of autonomous systems for over a decade now.
New Flyer says its new autonomous bus helps to further the Federal Transit Administration's (FTA) Strategic Transit Automation Research Plan which aims to evaluate the possibilities as well as risks associated with implementing autonomous transit buses. The testing project with CTDOT is funded by the FTA's Integrated Mobility Innovation initiative, and will help FTA with its evaluation of these autonomous vehicles.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says there are many possible benefits to autonomous vehicles (AV) like the Xcelsior AV which include:
- Economic and societal: AVs save $242 billion in costs incurred by motor vehicle crashes, including $57.6 billion in lost workplace productivity, and $594 billion due to loss of life and decreased quality of life due to injuries;
- Safety: AVs improve safety and use ADAS technology to avoid collisions – of which 94% of serious crashes are caused by human error;
- Efficiency and convenience: roads filled with AVs could smooth traffic flow and reduce traffic congestion, freeing up to 50 minutes per day of non-driving; and
- Mobility, accessibility, and jobs: studies suggest that AVs could create new employment opportunities for approximately two million people with disabilities.