A new consortium is developing an automated electric minibus service called the Horizon Europe ULTIMO project. According to the World Economic Forum (WEF), the project has a budget of almost $60 million over the course of four years and in 2025, 45 driverless electric minibuses will be programmed to run for a year in three European cities: Geneva, Switzerland; Kronach, Germany; and Oslo, Norway.
The pilot follows on from the University of Geneva’s AVENUE project (Autonomous Vehicles to Evolve to a New Urban Experience), which ran between 2018 and 2022 and was conducted at eight test sites in Europe. No less than 15 driverless electric minibuses are expected to be on the streets of Geneva by 2025. These shuttles should provide on-demand, door-to-door, 24-hour service.
ULTIMO’s goal is to develop a business model that addresses the economic, legal and security issues of the service.Dimitri Konstantas, ULTIMO’s technical director
The consortium involved in this ambitious project brings together twenty-three partners from eight European countries. Among them are the University of Geneva (UNIGE), the Geneva public transport system (TPG) and the Geneva-based start-up MobileThinking. The project is also financially supported by the European Commission (up to 34 million euros) and various industrial partners.
The manufacturer Navya has been selected. This French company had already delivered the autonomous vehicles of the H2020 AVENUE project, of which ULTIMO is the continuation. In a press release, Navya recalls that it has provided thirteen shuttles in this context, including in Geneva (within the Belle-Idée Hospital and Meyrin) and in Sion. The vehicles were tested between 2018 and 2022.
“The goal of AVENUE was to study the technical and economic feasibility of an automated transportation-on-demand service as well as the potential psychological barriers to its use. ULTIMO’s goal will be to develop a real business model that responds to the economic, legal and security issues of such a service,” explained Dimitri Konstantas, professor and director of the Information Science Institute at the Geneva School of Economics (GSEM) of the UNIGE. The expert is also technical director of ULTIMO.
The UNIGE underlines that one of the challenges to be taken up in view of the large-scale deployment of an autonomous public transport network lies in the standardization of the territory modeling. The aim is to make this process compatible with the guidance systems of a large number of vehicles, and thus optimize technical costs. In Geneva, several types of shuttles will be deployed to test the compatibility of the systems. The perimeter has yet to be defined.
On-demand public transport
According to the WEF, the first stage of the pilot will look to answer questions like how much tickets should cost, what the minimum and maximum distances should be, and how to adapt the legal framework, which currently does not allow automated buses to travel at more than 30km/h.
“By offering door-to-door, on-demand, 24-hour transport, the service would be of higher quality,” Konstantas said. “It would also avoid empty trips during off-peak hours and thus reduce some costs. Finally, by responding to demand in real time, queuing and congestion around stations could be avoided.”
The ULTIMO project will focus on the issue of how to ensure the safety of passengers and react in the event of accidents. Safety is essential to the project’s success because, as Forbes pointed out in 2022 autonomous driving technology can’t be relied on to handle very complex situations.