4th September marks the start of a new era for mobility in Belgium. Today, a self-driving shuttle capable of interacting with other road-users, took a drive on a public road for the first time carrying passengers. This first for Belgium was organised in Han-sur-Lesse by Vias institute and the Minister for Mobility François Bellot and was watched by Prime Minister Charles Michel. Over the coming weeks, the shuttle will be carrying visitors at the Caves of Han complex. A further test is planned later with a second shuttle bus operating at another tourist attraction.

A first for Belgium

Tests using autonomous shuttle buses have been going on just about everywhere in the world in recent years.

It was a little over a year ago that Vias institute conducted its first test using an autonomous shuttle bus. The test took place on private roads and was kept away from the public traffic. However, a driverless vehicle making its way between pedestrians and other vehicles in real traffic is a first for Belgium. The Highway Code has also had to be adjusted, making it possible for this test to be conducted on public roads – subject to complying with a number of conditions.

Prime Minister Charles Michel: “Mobility and digitisation are two major topics in the context of the National Pact for strategic investment. This test on public roads in real traffic conditions is a first for Belgium. Our country has always been very proactive in this area and is one of the first in Europe where these sorts of tests have been allowed. The federal government has been closely involved in the process. Automatic vehicles are a solution for the future, providing better mobility and greater safety on the roads."

The site at Han-sur-Lesse was selected for this ground-breaking first. During the weeks ahead, the shuttle will operate totally independently, operating over a route of approximately 500 metres on the public highway, from the car park to the ticket office for the Caves of Han complex.

Karin Genoe: ”The aim of Vias institute is to study the reactions of passengers and other road-users. This will enable us to improve the technology, where needed, and to ensure that these vehicles can be integrated harmoniously and in total safety into our traffic.” At a later stage, the shuttle bus will also be allowed to drive as far as the entrance to the Caves of Han – a distance in excess of 1.5 kilometres.

 

A road full of obstacles

To conduct this test, Vias institute was required to closely follow the procedure established by FPS Mobility. There was also a whole stack of practical problems that needed to be resolved, such as registering and insuring the vehicle. Then there was the obstacle of the driving licence needed by anyone who may be required to take over operating the vehicle should a problem arise. So this test had to smooth the way for itself in a whole range of areas, which will make it considerably easier for similar tests to be organised in the future.

Vehicles of the future

The driverless shuttle bus uses Lidar sensors to detect other road-users and any obstacles that may be in the way.

Self-driving shuttles such as this are ideal for use on campuses, at amusement parks and for carrying people, say, from a hospital car park to the building entrance. They will increase the mobility of the elderly or people with walking restrictions, because they are also adapted to pick up and carry wheelchair users.

Brigitte Malou, CEO of the Domain of the Caves of Han: ”We are honoured that Han-sur-Lesse has been selected to test exciting new technology such as this. It will provide an additional attraction for people to come and visit us.”  The town of Rochefort also shares her opinion: ”We are delighted that local residents and tourists will be able to discover this brand-new and innovative means of transport.”

There is currently a trend in cities not to bring private cars into the centre and instead to give preference to public transport. In the future we will be able to provide 2 additional modes of transport: drive in with your own car to a specific location and then take a driverless shuttle bus along a clearly defined route to the city centre where no private cars are allowed.

Still a few obstacles to be overcome

As is the case with every new technology, there are still a number of obstacles to be overcome, certainly in the area of the technology itself. Heavy rain, thick fog and certainly snow may mean that the Lidar sensors’ ability to “see” will be impeded. The public infrastructure itself still presents problems, too. Self-driving vehicles also need to be able to detect traffic signs and lane markings clearly if they are to drive on public roads.

Another important factor is the extent to which people will trust driverless vehicles such as these. Will they actually be willing to use them? This is the same confidence and trust that people had to overcome many decades ago in lifts. Back then, having a lift attendant was still a necessity.

Great expectations

Having said all that, governments have great expectations of this new technology. Driverless vehicles will make it possible to approach the target of zero road traffic victims. Certainly that is the only acceptable goal that we can set ourselves as a society in terms of road safety.

François Bellot, federal minister for Mobility: ”I am convinced that the mobility of tomorrow must be more shared, more connected and more intermodal. That way we will be able to improve road safety and mobility while reducing the negative effects on our environment. Driverless vehicles make a perfect match for this scenario. So, this is not the end of a process, but just the beginning.”