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Autonomous Vehicles in Finland: Pilots and commercial trials in public transport [free access]

June 1, 2021

Finland has undertaken several initiatives to introduce autonomous vehicles (AVs) in public transport, with several free and commercial pilots being implemented in the last five years. Finland has also developed a proactive legislative and regulatory framework for the testing, trial, and operation of autonomous shuttles. The existing ecosystem of AVs—comprising public–private stakeholders, technology innovators, investors, and manufacturers—is contributing to the development and use ofAV technology in public transport. The pilots and commercial trials have aided in improving AV technology. However, the scale of all such pilots has been too small to yield useful data on the usability of this technology in a city-wide public transport network.

 

Figure 1 summarises the evolution of AVs in Finland.

 

Figure 1: Evolution of AVs in Finland

Source: SOHJOA

 

Driving forces

 

The Government of Finland’s commitment to testing and deploying autonomous driving technology is of critical importance in ensuring the adoption of new innovations. The centralised structure of authorities in Finland and the overall technology-friendly licencing policy of the government also play key roles in facilitating the implementation of pilots and commercial trials of AVs in the public road transport sector. As per KPMG’s Autonomous Vehicles Readiness Index, 2020, Finland has the highest ratings for AV-specific regulations and for the efficiency of its legal system.

 

In 2019, Finland’s Ministry of Economic Affairs and Employment agreed to provide government funding for the launch of the Research Alliance for Autonomous Systems (RAAS). RAAS is aimedat bringing together research parties, generating synergy benefits, and supporting mutual learning in the field of autonomous systems.

 

In June 2020, Finland also opened its entire road network for AV trials and implemented the new Road Traffic Act.

 

Over the years, Finland has developed a strong public–private ecosystem for the development and deployment of AVs. The ecosystem incorporates public and private organisations, including Roadcloud, VTT, Maanmittauslaitos, Vaisala, TMFG, Traficom, LVM Väylä, Business Finland, and Forum Virium Helsinki. Finland also leads in having a digital infrastructure with 5G network that enables the efficient operation of connected automated driving services. 

 

Helsinki pilot

 

Helsinki was one of the five citiesin Europeto implement an autonomous public transport service pilot as part of the Future Automated Bus Urban Level Operation Systems (FABULOS) project. The three-year-long FABULOS project started in 2017. It was funded under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 programme. The Helsinki pilot was operational for three months, between April 2020 and June 2020. A fleet of three self-driving vehicles was operated in Pasila, Helsinki. The service was available through an on-demand mobile app and was monitored from a Remote-Control Centre (RCC) for AVs.

 

The pilot was operated by a consortium of Sensible4 from Finland and Shotl from Spain. The consortium used one autonomous bus developed by Sensible4 and MUJI. The other two buses were from Renault Twizy, and a retrofitted CM7 minibus from Chinese car maker Dongfeng Motor Co. Ltd. The route was 1.2 km long. It offered a selection of different kinds of intersections such as roundabouts and intersections with traffic lights, thusmaking it possible to test the functions under varying conditions. The pilot was operated for 50 days and served about 184 passengers.Based on the lessons learned through the FABULOS pilot, Sensible4 is planning to release its first commercial autonomous driving software, Dawn, in 2022.

 

User feedback: The pilot received positive user feedback. Table 1 presents the average scores for different service parameters. Overall, the user experience was satisfactory. The service has the potential for daily use.

 

Table 1: Helsinki pilot passenger survey results

Parameter

Score

Sample size

Average score for overall experience

5.83/7.00

12 responses

Average score for traffic safety

5.92/7.00

12 responses

Average score for personal safety

5.50/7.00

12 responses

Average score for ease of use

5.50/7.00

12 responses

Source: FABULOS, Passenger Survey Results, Helsinki

 

Political learnings:The city authorities exhibiteda political willingness to experiment and innovate,and a supportive attitude towards the adoption of AV technology. Helsinki’s city traffic planning authorities were involved in the route planning, as they were aware of the technology and its potential for improving public transport. The public transit authority, Helsinki Region Transport (HSL), allowed the integration of the pilot route with HSL’s Journey Planner app and assigned an official route number (29R). The route information and details were available on the city public transport information page and app.

 

Economic findings:The technology is not yet financially or technically viable for commercial deployment. Nevertheless, the public transit authority, HSL, is the most likely adaptor of the solution. HSL can potentially procure the AV fleet and absorb the effects of the commercial risk posed by thedeployment of new technology. However, this is only possible when an AV shuttle can operate without a safety driver onboard. The comprehensive uptake of AV shuttles is possible only whenthe existing fleet of conventional buses can be replaced with AV shuttles, at least partly, and when designing new routes for conventional buses.

 

Social findings:It is anticipated that people will use automated buses in the future in Helsinki only if the route, schedule, and quality of the service all meet user demands and requirements. In the case of the pilot project, the selected route was short, and the service did not address the mobility needs of passengers;the passengers were primarily trying out the shuttle. The COVID-19 pandemic also affected the number of passengers who participated in the AV trial. The service was operational between 9.00 a.m.and 4.00 p.m., which meant that it was only available to a certain group of passengers. Overall, automated buses are lagging behind conventional public transport buses in certain areas and capabilities, and their adoption on a commercially viable basis is dependent on bridging this gap in order to meet passenger needs.

 

Technological findings:The pilot helped the traffic planning authorities in gaining a deeper understanding of the conditions necessary for implementationand deployment and in identifying the gaps in the deployment of automated technology. Such a service is likely to be operated with a safety driver on board for now. The availability and presence ofan onboard safety driver increases the role of human intervention in response to unforeseen events andslows down the development of autonomous technology as it can be ensured that the safety operator will interact with the vehicle in case there is aneed for this intervention, rather than developing a solution to pass along the responsibility for these actions to the vehicle itself. It is difficult to predict how often automated technology will require human intervention during operations.

 

From the operator’s perspective, the design and engineering of the intersections play a key role in ensuring integration between driven vehicles and automated vehicles. Secondly, a combination of demand-based services and AV services has higher potentialfor adoption and greater potential for achieving financial viability.

 

Legal findings:Finland already has arobust legal and regulatory framework for the trial and adoption of AVs. The Finnish Transport andCommunications Agency (Traficom) issues test plate certificates within two weeks of application provided the application includes motor insurance, technical specifications about the vehicle, risk analysis, a route plan, and a description of operations. The process is fast and structured. This existing ecosystem makes it easy to apply for permission for conducting trials. A fully commercial uptake ofautomated buses would require the vehicles to be type approved. The typeapprovals of automated vehicles are pending, awaitingthe implementation of EU regulations.

 

Tampere pilot

 

In September 2020, Tampere started a free trial with AVs, Roboride. The service was operated by Roboride Limited, a Finnish company, and the technology was developed in collaboration with Auve Tech. The vehicles were operated around Hiedanranta and the Lielahti Manor area in Tampere. The service was operated from September28, 2020 to November7, 2020 as a last- and first-mile service, with six stops between Paasikiventie and Kuivaamo in Hiedanranta. The pilot was part of the City of Tampere’s HiedanrantaMobility-as-a-Service (MaaS) project whose objective is the development of sustainable Maas. The project is supported by the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF).

 

The AV travels at approximately 20 km/hr and utilises several technologies for automatic driving, such as sensors, cameras, and radar. The service covered a total of 603 km and served 419 passengers.The findings of the pilot reveal that technology was likely to reduce accidents. The majority of those who tried the servicestated that they would like to use the robot bus again and said they would recommend it to their friends, especially for trips of 1–3 km. However, users would prefer human-driven vehicles over AVs.

 

Espoo pilots

 

In April 2019, the City of Espoo began public operation of the all-weather Gacha driverless bus, developed and operated by Sensible4. In September 2019, the driverless shuttle service was launched in the campus of Finnish telecoms equipment maker Nokia in Kera. In March 2021, Sensible4 launched a commercial pilot in Espoo. Table 1 lists the details of the completed and ongoing pilots in Espoo.

 

Table 2: Autonomous service pilots in Espoo

Area

Duration

Type of service

Fleet size

Perkaa 

October 2020 – December 2020 

Private service  

2 to 5  

Muoni testtrack  

December 2020  

On public road with normal traffic   

1 

Karaportti

April 2021 – July 2021

On public road with normal traffic 

3

Otaneimi

April 2021

On public road with normal traffic 

1

Source: Sensible4

 

Autonomous Vehicle Readiness Index, 2020

 

According to the Autonomous Vehicle Readiness Index, 2020, released by KPMG, Finland ranked fifth,following Singapore, the Netherlands, Norway, and the United States. The overall ranking of Finland rose from the sixth position in 2018 to the fifth position in 2020. Table 3 lists the parameters for which Finland was rated among the top four countries.Overall, Finland excels in acceptance of new technology and in supportive governance. It scored fair on technology and innovation and on infrastructural readiness.

 

Table 3: Finland’s ranking in Autonomous Vehicle Readiness Index, 2020

Parameter

Rank 1

Rank 2

Rank 3

Rank 4

Market share of electric cars

Norway

Netherlands

Sweden

Finland

Civil society technology use

Sweden

United States

Finland

Norway

AV technology firm headquarters

Israel

Sweden

Finland

Singapore

Policy and regulation

Singapore

United Kingdom

Netherlands

Finland

Consumer acceptance

Singapore

Finland

Sweden

UAE

Source: Autonomous Vehicle Readiness Index, 2020, KPMG

 

Key challenges

 

The pilots conducted in different cities in Finland tested the operation of driverless vehicles. However, the route length for all the pilots was too short for gaining a proper understandingof the potential of AV technology at the level of city service. The key challenges as identified through user feedback are safety and operation in all-weather conditions. The innovators also face the problem of ensuring the financial viability of the technology so as to guarantee its widespread deployment as part of the existing public transport system in Finland.

 

The way forward

 

Finland’s legislative and regulatory framework gives the country an edge in implementing AV trials compared to other European nations. The transparent and streamlined process creates an attractive environment for investors, innovators, and operators. The country envisions AVs as a new industrial sector that will enable economic growth while focusing on sustainable mobility. Finland also lacks a major vehicle manufacturer. This provides an opportunity for small companies to develop AV prototypes with more independence. The government is likely to consider providing AV-related subsidies to further support the development and operation of AVs.

 

The pilots received positive feedback from users, revealing a high level of user acceptance of new technology. However, passengers would prefer to travel in a vehicle operated by a driver over an AV. User apprehension is fairly high, as the technology is not fully developed yet.

 

Given the interest of the government and the active role of innovators, Finlandis likely to witnessan increase in the deployment of AVs in public transit services.