CAVForth, an autonomous vehicle project funded by the UK government, started on-road testing its new autonomous buses today. Fully autonomous vehicles are years away, but projects like this are laying the groundwork for future services and passenger vehicles to operate without a driver safely.

The test will run for two weeks and see five single-decker buses traversing a 14-mile route. It’s practice for when it’ll eventually ferry passengers between the Ferrytoll Park and Ride in Fife and the Edinburgh Park and Tram interchange. Once the service is up and running for passengers, a single bus will be able to carry up to 36 passengers. The service will have the capacity for over 10,000 passengers a week, and it’s scheduled to go live in late summer.

Before progressing to on-road testing, the project completed a series of depot-based trails, track testing, and virtual simulations. CAVForth also sought input from around 500 members of the public for feedback about how to bus should operate. One thing the service will have is a member of the staff onboard each autonomous bus. CAVForth is working with Stagecoach, Fusion Procession, Transport Scotland, and Alexander Dennis.

Stagecoach will soon begin recruiting 20 “Autonomous Bus Professionals” to monitor the autonomous bus systems. At the same time, a “Captain” will interact with passengers, answer questions, and preview a potential self-driving future. The buses will operate at SAE Level 4, which means the system does not expect the driver to take over, though the vehicle might come equipped with vehicle controls.

“This is a major step forward in our journey to fully launch the UK’s first full-sized autonomous bus service and will provide easy access to a brand-new bus route in the heart of East Scotland,” said Sam Greer, Regional Director for Stagecoach in Scotland.

Fully autonomous vehicles that lack any controls are still years away from mainstream usability. The technology still has several hurdles to overcome before it’s reliable and safe enough to replace humans in every driving situation. As companies improve the tech, cars should inch toward full autonomy, with buses, robotaxis, and other services likely adopting the tech for use in predefined, geofenced locations.

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