The city of Paris recently began running two driverless buses between the train stations Gare de Lyon and Austerlitz. The EZ10 buses can hold a dozen passengers and travel at 12mph along a half-mile route. They travel through a dedicated lane rather than on the open road. Similar driverless buses are being piloted in other cities such Helsinki, Singapore and Las Vegas.
Although the development of driverless cars currently garners most of the media attention, they're not quite ready for prime time. The extreme unpredictability of most driving environments, and the limits of current mapping and sensor technology, has prevented vehicles from achieving full autonomy yet. In the meantime, however, fixed routes present a driving environment where autonomous vehicles can be deployed with much lower risk.
The driverless buses being tested are also fully electric, and are part of a greater effort to reduce carbon emissions and air pollution. This points to one of the key sustainability opportunities of autonomous vehicles: if deployed as part of a fleet, rather than individually owned vehicles, they may pave the way for a faster transition to electric vehicles. This is because fleet owners are likely to have a greater incentive to embrace the long-term cost savings and emissions reductions of electric vehicles than individual car owners might. Fleets of electric buses and, eventually, taxis, could offer a way to transition to a lower emission form of transit without the same investment in infrastructure required by new rail systems.
Finally, driverless buses are part of the rapid mainstreaming of automation that is remaking the future of work, with highly uncertain consequences. Although these vehicles may displace a relatively limited number of bus drivers, millions of taxi drivers and truck drivers are also at risk of being displaced down the line. Ideally moves such as this scheme in Paris will spur discussion about the wide-ranging challenges and opportunities presented by this rapidly developing technology.