Volvo’s prototype autonomous bus drives itself around depots

Volvo has demonstrated yet another potential use-case for autonomous transport, after its Volvo Buses subsidiary showcased a self-driving bus that’s capable of transporting itself around depots.

The Swedish automotive giant partnered with public transport Keolis to configure a 12 metre electric bus that can traverse between parking bays and work stations, to ensure that it’s cleaned, serviced, and fully charged before moving back to the correct bay. As with many new demonstration of autonomous technology, Volvo stresses that this is less about replacing humans than it is about improving efficiency and safety.

“This marks a very important step in our autonomous journey as we now have successfully shown the commercial benefits an autonomous solution can deliver in a bus depot,” noted Volvo Buses president Håkan Agnevall. “Autonomous buses in depots bring new benefits such as more efficient traffic flows, higher productivity, less damages and improved safety.”

As more vehicle manufacturers commit to an electric future to cut emissions, including Volvo itself which now only make hybrid or electric cars, the charging infrastructure that enables this is also evolving to make the process as smooth as possible. OppCharge, for example, enables vehicles such as Volvo’s bus to maneuver itself into a charging position without having to mess around with cables.

Above: Charging a Volvo bus

Similar, the bus can be ushered toward a washing hub for cleaning, without any human involved in the process.

Above: Washing an autonomous Volvo bus

The process isn’t entirely human-free, as someone has to tell the bus what to do. But the idea here is that whoever is in charge of bus maintenance would tap a screen at the command center, and tell “bus number 1” to go for a wash, for example, or drive to the workshop.

Above: Beckoning an autonomous Volvo bus

Volvo has carried out a number of autonomous bus demonstrations before, but this latest one, which took place at a Keolis’ depot outside of Gothenburg, was among the first to take place in a real bus depot.

The bus isn’t ready for prime time quite yet, and neither Volvo or Keolis have indicated when this might be rolled out to working depots permanently. But it serves as further evidence that autonomous transport will seep slowly into society through niche, industry-specific use-cases. It’s all about using predefined routes and repetitive flows, similar to what Volvo Trucks has been doing with its various commercial endeavors with self-driving trucks, which has included transporting materials from mines, helping sugarcane farmers in Brazil improve their crop yield, and also to collect garbage.

Volvo recently committed to reporting its autonomous truck financials from next year, giving shareholders greater insight into how the company is monetizing its driverless vehicle technologies. But as the world’s biggest bus manufacturers, this vehicle-category offers a big opportunity for Volvo to steal a lead in self-driving transport.

“We are still many years away from seeing fully-autonomous buses on public roads, but since bus depots are confined areas with predictable and repetitive traffic flows, we see autonomous buses being used there much sooner,” Agnevall added. “Working together with Keolis has given us this unique opportunity to test an autonomous bus in real conditions and will help us drive the development of autonomous solutions forward.”


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