I'm a freelance writer living in Perth. Having 2 young kids with endless energy, we are always on the lookout for new outdoor activities.
Published November 23rd 2018
Is the future here already?
Most of us have heard of driverless vehicles, some of them admittedly fictional in some futuristic setting. Readers of a certain age would perhaps remember it if I mention Kitt from Knight Rider as an example.
Well, here and now we can ride on a real driverless vehicle already. In 2016, RAC launched their Intellibus® Trial on public roads and after several upgrades, the trial is still going on now, almost two years later, at South Perth foreshore.
The bus traveling on South Perth Esplanade
Anyone over the age of seven could participate by booking a seat online or directly with the attendant at the Intellibus Hub, which is a small reception/ waiting room at the eastern end of South Perth Esplanade. A child 7-14 years old needs a parent or guardian with them onboard while a teenager 15-17 years could ride with parent permission.
Park behind the Hub
A maximum of six passengers are allowed per ride, so if you decide to just show up, there is a chance that the next scheduled ride is fully booked and you might have to wait for the following one. Waiting is made easier though by the lovely surrounding: a big park with playground just behind the hub, city view across the water, and in the hub itself there are some information display, colouring in and free lollies. Waiting time is also partly used to fill in the registration form including your name and contact details.
One of the information displays on the wall of the Hub.
When your scheduled ride is ready, the attendant from the hub will walk with you to the bus stopping some fifty metres away and pass you on to the on-board attendant who will start with explaining what's what before we even step onto the bus.
Interior of the bus
There are two attendants on board: one to explain/answer questions and the other one to watch the road and take over the control when needed, interestingly enough not by wrenching the steering wheel like in the movies (as indeed there are no steering wheels) but by using an Xbox 360 controller attached to the on-board computer. There have not been many cases where the attendant has to do that, as the bus has multiple sensors pointing at different directions which means the bus will automatically brake when it gets close to another object such as another vehicle, a pedestrian, or even a bird flying pass.
This automated braking admittedly still needs fine tuning, as it is really quite uncomfortable and unnecessarily risky for the passengers if the bus is to brake suddenly due to something like a passing bird. The thing is, humans could make a judgement that the bird will safely fly pass and will not pose any danger to anyone, whereas the Intellibus only knows how to calculate distance and make a decision based on that. So for now, passengers of the trial vehicle sometimes are still subject to sudden braking due to the bus sensor detecting something too close.
One example where the attendant on board did take over the control of the Intellibus was when there was a car making a three point turn further down the road. Out of courtesy to a fellow road user, the attendant stopped the bus before the automated braking kicked in to give ample space to the turning car.
In the future, a vehicle like this would be "communicating" with other vehicles (eg to indicate which way the vehicle is turning at an intersection) and also with infrastructure such as traffic lights (to know whether it's red, amber, or green) or road signs. Currently, the trial area does not have these and when there is a temporary one (e.g. a lollipop man holding a stop sign for a roadwork), the on-board attendant could take over and stop the vehicle accordingly.
The technology behind such a vehicle is beyond me but it felt safe when I did take a ride. The feeling as a passenger I found is not much different from riding a train, where in general we are in a room full of passengers and can't see the driver.
The ride takes about half an hour including the short explanation in the beginning. The bus travels west along the South Perth Foreshore until it reaches the Old Mill and then turns back to return to the hub. Before leaving the bus, every passenger received a certificate of appreciation and later on (a few days later) an email asking for feedback on the ride. Afterall, it is a trial and therefore they are interested to know what passengers say about it.
Certificate of appreciation
Intrigued? Why not take a ride and find out for yourself if indeed the future is already here.