Scotland’s first trial of an automated passenger bus service was launched in the Highlands on Thursday October 6.
The AV (autonomous vehicle) passenger service provides a three-kilometre route linking Inverness Campus with the Inverness Retail and Business Park, including a railway crossing facilitated by the recently introduced sustainable travel bridge. The corridor is restricted to public transport, walking, and cycling only, with those walking and cycling segregated from road vehicles across most of the route.
One vehicle is operating on the journey between Eastfield Way at the Retail Park and Inverness Campus between 10 am – 4.20 pm Monday – Saturday, offering up to 15 seats (11 seated and 4 standing). The service will be free for the first six weeks following the launch, after which a nominal fee will apply until the trial ends in March, next year.
The trial is being promoted by HITRANS, the regional transport partnership for the Highlands and Islands, which is working with a number of partners to deliver the project. These include Stagecoach, which will operate the service, NAVYA, which manufactured the AV, The Highland Council, Inverness Campus and UHI Inverness.
HITRANS is exploring funding opportunities to keep the pilot running at Inverness Campus, involving different routes. It is also looking to offer demand-responsive transport booking options for the bus so that it can be used in the evening. Longer term, HITRANS intends to trial the technology in other locations in the Highlands and Islands.
The shuttle service is being used by students and people working on the Inverness Campus site to access the neighbouring Inverness Retail and Business Park throughout the day. Partners are keen to see the services used as much as possible throughout the trial and will look to work with schools to support school visits to allow young people to travel on the service.
The trial is seen as complementary to a project in Hannover, Germany, where trialling an autonomous bus shuttle between a tram stop and a new university campus is being undertaken.
Monitoring will be conducted throughout the pilot on various technological aspects as well as social impacts. The intention of the pilots is not only to test the viability of a route operated by an AV, but also to test the technology required to use AVs in combination with other transport modes and better understand user perceptions.
Councillor Uisdean Robertson, chair of HITRANS, said: “We are delighted to be piloting this pioneering project as we are committed to encouraging multi-modal travel and reducing dependency on private car use. We have been able to lead on this project by attracting European funding, and we hope the lessons learned from the pilot will help shape the future roll out of AV not only here but across Europe.”
Jayne Golding, projects and policy manager of HITRANS, said: “Safety is paramount to the project and all UK regulation relating to autonomous vehicles will be complied with. While the vehicle might be capable of driving itself without being controlled by an individual, an operator will be always present in the vehicle. The driving task will be delegated to the vehicle, but the operator will be ready to take control whenever they are required to do so.”
Professor Chris O’Neil, principal and chief executive of UHI Inverness, said: “UHI Inverness has an on-going commitment to sustainable travel for our students and staff and we were recognised earlier this year as a cycling friendly campus. The automated bus complements our ethos, and we are pleased that our main campus will be served by the first service of this kind in Scotland.”
Donald Hall, travel and transport manager for Inverness Campus, said: “The campus is an ideal location for this trial with a high-quality multi-use environment that is enjoyed by businesses, research organisations, students and local residents.”
David Beaton, managing director for Stagecoach Highlands, said: “As a company with innovation firmly at our heart, we are very excited to be involved in the pilot of the autonomous technology in Inverness. Autonomous vehicle technology can provide major benefits, with evidence suggesting that it can further enhance safety, deliver fuel and efficiency savings from more optimised braking and acceleration, as well as a better overall customer experience.”