China’s Self-Driving Bus Shows Autonomous Tech’s Real Potential

2015IBKCjOBXSEFOR ALL THE excitement surrounding autonomous vehicles, most of the attention has focused on what the technology will mean for consumers who might finally be freed from the tyranny of the commute. No less revolutionary is what the technology might mean for mass transit and trucking.

Granted, robo-trucks and self-driving buses aren’t nearly so sexy as, say, Audi’s gorgeous autonomous A7 or as friendly as Google’s cute self-driving gumdrop of a car. But the technology is here, now, and proving itself in real-world testing.

Just last week, a Mercedes-Benz Actros big-rig equipped with Daimler’s “highway pilot” system made the 15-mile run from Denkendorf to Stuttgart, Germany, on highway A8, staying within its lane and maintaining a safe following distance. That test followed an announcement by Chinese manufacturer Yutong that its autonomous bus handled 26 traffic signals, several lane changes and at least one passing maneuver during a 20-mile drive between Zhengzhou and Kaifeng.

Yutong hasn’t revealed much its technology, but says the bus uses laser, radar, and camera systems on each side of the vehicle. Daimler’s autopilot system has a stereoscopic camera to read lane lines and short- and long-range radar to scan the road for obstacles up to 800 feet ahead. The truckmade its debut on public roads in Nevada in May.

As impressive as these tests are, they pale compared to what more advanced prototypes can do. Google’s cars have racked up more than 1 million miles on public roads using technology so sophisticated it can, for example, recognize a cyclist’s hand signals. Audi’s prototype A7 drove 500 miles without any input from the human at the wheel. And Volvo plans to put 100 customers in cars with autonomous capabilities and turn them loose on public roads in Sweden by 2017.

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