Slow and steady

2getthere CEO Carel Van Helsdingen explains to Alex Kreetzer the process behind rolling out autonomous vehicles as a public transport network in cities. 

Automated transit systems are the answer to many problems found in cities around the world today. Through advanced connected technology, these systems can create a smart ecosystem that can realise automated ideas and goals that urban environments wish to achieve, improving congestion, pollution and overall efficiency. 2getthere is one company pursuing this mobility dream, with over 30 years of experience in the automated sector, first approaching this innovation through indoor autonomous warehouse vehicles. The company has developed the technology and implemented it in automated transit applications, giving an insight into what the future holds for transportation networks. 2getthere is a spin-off company of Frog Navigation Systems, which was founded in 1984 to deliver automated guided vehicles to factories around the world. In 2007, 2getthere became an independent company focused on delivering automated vehicles for passenger transport

Carel Van Helsdingen, the CEO of 2getthere, tells me that the company’s goal is to deliver market leading fully-automated transit solutions. “We have been doing that with the introduction of the first automated system at grade intersections (Rivium business park, 1999), the world’s first Personal Rapid Transit system (Masdar City, 2010) and the largest autonomous vehicle system to date (Bluewaters Island, 2019),” he says. “We expect to continue to deliver both systems operating on a dedicated road as well as applications in mixed traffic. With regards to the latter we are under contract to deliver our third generation system to Rivium business park in 2019, with mixed traffic operations from 2020 onwards – the unique aspect being that this will be a system without safety driver, steward or host.” Through this development, 2getthere continues to expand into different areas and applications in order to create a solution to the struggling transit systems we see today. The company’s existing vehicles are a product birthed through collaboration between technology, manufacturing and design specialists. Working with Italian coach building company Zagato on the design and global engineering and R&D leader Altran for the production, 2getthere has utilised skills from across different sectors, which is vital when creating a product like this. I echo once more, collaboration is a necessity if you want success in this market, to which Van Helsdingen agrees: “Working together with expert third parties is essential to provide systems that can be certified against existing regulations.”

The buffalo theory

It is incredibly difficult to identify what changes we need to make to our infrastructure to enable autonomous growth as cities are densely populated, complex and have many unique characteristics. When it comes to this challenge, Van Helsdingen believes that there is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution and stresses that there needs to be an emphasis on the safety of these processes. “When it comes to transportation, each part of the network needs to be designed to the requirements and spatial planning available. The focus in the design is on safety first and throughput second.” However, there is a bigger problem that seems to have evaded the industry’s focus. It doesn’t make much sense to directly insert automated vehicles into cities just yet, as they would become a part of the problem, stuck in traffic behind manually driven vehicles. Van Helsdingen is concerned that if the industry jumps the gun and rolls out autonomous vehicles all over cities, they run the risk of creating a much more serious problem in terms of congestion. “Experience has shown that automated vehicles will be just as fast as the slowest other road user,” he explains. “Cities are currently exploring what consequences autonomous vehicles actually cause - if not done correctly, the autonomous car has the potential to destroy the city, mobility, accessibility and liveability.”

To combat this, companies and cities need to analyse what different solutions there are, whether that is car sharing or autonomous transport networks. With metropolitan areas rapidly increasing, we will see more traffic jams, pollution and energy use. It is safe to say that if we do not reduce the number of vehicles in cities, this problem will continue to worsen, even if we see the introduction of electric vehicles and self driving cars. Quite simply, privatised autonomous vehicles are an extremely inefficient alternative and we should focus on mobility services instead. “If we can increase the sharing of vehicles, by providing efficient public transit, the negative effects of the growth can be minimised,” Van Helsdingen continues. “Governments and authorities can influence the developments and trends by setting parameters and drafting laws that encourage and support the sharing economy over individual ownership.” It is important to understand that autonomous cars cannot, or will not, be effective in every environment or situation. Autonomous vehicles are a great solution for, say, motorways and open areas, but they could be an issue in dense areas - something we have seen with level 5 testing. However, a shared approach changes all of this, freeing up roads and developing smarter cities. “Autonomous shared transit is a requirement for a smart city,” echos Van Helsdingen.

Delivering the vision

As I have said many times before, future mobility is a collaborative effort, including the consumer. This is a problem when it comes to autonomous technology, as it is a completely new addition to transportation, which may confuse people outside of the industry. Like many, 2getthere has focused on sourcing customers who are open to test the vehicles, whilst raising awareness of the benefits autonomous vehicles will bring to cities around the world. In addition, mobility companies have to then deliver on their promises and projects to stay ahead of the competition. “The key to overcome this has been to work together closely with both our customers and our suppliers; the systems that we deliver are not complete by the time they are ready for operations - that’s when the actual purpose of the vehicles start,” Van Helsdingen adds. “It is complete by the time the systems are the end of their useful life (20 years) and need to be decommissioned. Our company works with our customers during the time of the operations to ensure passengers are provided with the best possible transit experience.”

However, it is vital that we monitor the development of autonomous vehicles, making sure that companies are 100% sure of the technology before putting the projects on the road, to help create a safe environment. This area of future transportation is very competitive, with everyone trying to rush the roll-out of autonomous technology in uncontrolled environments, which runs the risk of faulty systems that could seriously harm passengers and the ecosystem around the vehicle. Van Helsdingen and his team understand this potential issue and focus on a gradual approach. “Our focus is on the certification of applications, of which the software is just one part. With the engineering of the application addressing all the various aspects, the safety is ensured by the sum of the components. We believe in the incremental introduction and improvement of automated transit systems, taking a step-by-step approach to increasing the degree of difficulty of the operating environment.” 

Due to this, an uncontrolled environment is not a primary focus for 2getthere, focusing on semi-controlled environments first, which, Van Helsdingen says, “allows for introduction of services today rather than tomorrow.” By creating a sensible and practical pathway for developing autonomous vehicle systems, through the development of semi-controlled environments to less-controlled ones, autonomous specialists can not only overcome the need to modify the environment but understand the different conditions in which these vehicles will operate. Maybe we should focus on realistic solutions for the short and medium term, rather than getting carried away with the visions we have of the distant future. This is a journey for everyone involved and it could be disastrous if we move too abruptly. 

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