Today is the last day of the massive Viva Technology conference in Paris and I had the chance to get hands-on with Navya’s fully electric, 15-seater autonomous bus. The company is doing big things worldwide and if you’re a regularly reader, you’ll know they’re already doing big things in Australia.
I’ll get to the ride experience in a second, but the big news from VivaTech is that Navya personnel confirmed they are working on a larger (and smaller) version of the bus. Unfortunately they would define the exact sizes, but it does speak to the confidence they have that their technology has far broader applications.
Right now the 15 passenger capacity is made up of 11 seated and 4 standing which would be tight, but possible. When regular buses can hold up to 48 passengers, 49 if you include the driver, a larger capacity bus, particularly in high density, will need to have larger capacities to compete.
The symmetrical bus right now, is programmed to drive along a predetermined route. They great thing about being symmetrical is that its also bi-directional. This means there’s no need for a turning circle at the end of the line and in some locations the physical space available may not permit that. Its smart and really takes advantage of the electric motor to run in either direction.
Right now they’re working on future iterations that won’t be restricted to a set path, instead just limited by zones. This means you could show a user a map, have them tap anywhere inside the area and have the bus deliver them there safely, avoiding obstacles along the way, while ensuring its stays in a safe zone (translation, not on the road).
When I first got to there, the bus was charging, so naturally I asked how long that process takes. The answer is around 6 hours for around 10-12 hours of use. In certainly applications that’s fine, in others, that’s a problem and you’d need multiple buses to switch in and out. Given the no-human pitch of this product, having someone around just to plug in the power cord seems like a bad idea, so I asked about wireless, inductive charging and Navya confirmed, they’re absolutely working on that as that’s the key for non-stop use, given it could be charging between use. I also wouldn’t be surprised to see solar added to the roof as another way to charge the batteries.
When you open the doors to the Navya, you’ll see welcoming seats in a clean white and blue colour scheme (remember this can be OEM’d so colours will vary). I was surprised to find the seats had seatbelts, staff explained that given they ship into multiple countries, they have to include them by law in some areas. In reality, nobody will wear them.
Inside there’s a single touchscreen display to control the destination. Just tap on your destination, confirm and the bus begins moving. This method understand the needs of the customers on-board and only stops at the locations necessary, rather than every location just in case. This optimises travel times.
In real-world implementations users who arrive at a stop could press a button and have that stop added to the locations that need to be stopped at.
Because there’s driver, there’s also likely nobody to help in the event of an emergency. Navya have solved this by providing a fire extinguisher and medial pack on-board should anything happen. While we’re on the topic, there’s also a CCTV camera installed in the roof (near the entry) that can monitor and ensure the safety of passengers remotely.
Riding on the bus is a very comfortable experience, with the electric motors able to deliver an ultra smooth take off, unlike traditional buses which have the associated jerkiness as the drive-train moves through the gears. Being electric, it has significant torque which means it easily moves the weight of the bus which is around 1800-1900 kg with batteries. as well as the weight of the occupants (with luggage etc). Imagine 15 passengers, weighing in at around 100kg each, 1,500 + 1,900.. this thing is potentially 2,400kg.
This weight calculation is important when it comes to collision avoidance. Right now, the bus uses a complex array of lidar, radar, sensors and cameras that feed into a decision matrix that handles safety. Should a pedestrian, a pet or any other object move in the path of the bus, it stops. Like the Active City Stop from Ford, this technology only works up to a certain speed, around 50km. That’s part of the reason the bus is limited to 45km, safety, despite the EV actually being capable of much higher speeds.
During the demonstration, an employee intentionally walked in front of the bus and the bus stopped safely with room to spare. After spending a few seconds waiting, the bus gets helps the pedestrian realise they’re obstructing the passengers in the vehicle and sounds its horn. Yep, that’s an automated horn. Assuming they do move, the bus resumes the trip as intended.
In this and many trials, there’s no payment system, its simply get on and ride. Expect this to change with a MyKi or similar NFC tap and ride system to be added in the future. If Navya are anything like the rest of the companies at VivaTech, they’ll definitely want to know more data about the people that take their bus.
Ultimately the Navya bus is a great solution to transportation. The capacity and possibly speed do need to increase to have broader appeal and its important that the economics start to stack up as Government support trials won’t get this technology across the line to mainstream.
The ride was a great experience and if you get the chance to jump on a Navya bus without a driver, make sure you take it.