I took a ride on the robot bus that started shuttling regularly on Wednesday between Pasila railway station, Messukeskus and another street in the eastern Pasila district in Helsinki.
I waited for the robot bus at the Messukeskus bus stop in Helsinki’s Pasila district. Slowly and noiselessly, the little engine wheeled from around the corner and glided on down the alley. It gave a turn signal, which looked like the graphic on your computer when it’s buffering, and it pulled up to the stop.
The robot bus experiment is part of a project, which is entitled FABULOS. It began one and a half years ago. Now three different kinds of driverless shuttle bus solutions are tested in urban environments in Helsinki and four other European cities.
The driverless shuttle bus is in service on line 29R, making a small loop between Messukeskus and Pasila Train Station on weekdays from 8:15 to 9:35, and again in the afternoon from 13:40 to 15:20. The bus has three stops on its route- Anyone who wants to test what appears to be the future of public transport can request a stop via mobile app, or simply show up at one of the stops, as I did.
The entrance was in the very middle of the shuttle. The doors opened into the aisle, where presumably people can stand. At present, however, physical distancing regulations mandate that the bus takes only two passengers at a time.
On each side of the aisle there was a half-circle booth, enclosed by a panoramic window. The booths seat six people between them. In the front booth sat a man to whom one can direct the many questions that will inevitably arise while in transit. Behind him, a screen is showing the route calculations—this, perhaps, was as close as we would get to a “driver.” I sat in the back booth, along with a fellow passenger.
And off we went! I wondered for a brief moment where the driver was hidden, but I didn’t want to bring that up. The man told us the shuttle cruising speed is about 30km/h. I noticed straight away that the bus was careful to stop at every single pedestrian crossing, even if there were no pedestrians in sight, displaying perhaps greater regard for safety than many human drivers. The man in the front booth, to whom I want to refer as “the driver,” if only for convention’s sake, explained that the software (“Software is driving me around!” I thought.) is indeed exceedingly cautious: sometimes it takes in street signs or other inanimate objects and if it isn’t sure they aren’t human, it will stop or slow down until it is sure.
By the time we joined the denser traffic on the corner of Tripla Mall, all the slowing down and speeding up made me realize that the software does have a bit of a heavy foot, so to speak. The brakes are sometimes a bit abrupt, as is the acceleration. Although, to its credit, I’ve seen worse still from human drivers.
And just like that, we made it full circle back to Messukeskus, where I got off. The experience was, all things considered, less surreal than I had imagined. Even on a short journey such as the one currently in service, about halfway through I found myself not being all that conscious of the fact that I was being shuttled around by a computer—as if it were normal and not like something out of a science fiction novel. This is probably why I felt confident enough to critique its driving in my mind. But the bottom line is, this driverless bus can certainly get you from A to B. Which is spooky.