Imagining a World with Autonomous Public Transportation

In London, the subway network handles up to 4.8 million daily commuters.  Add to that the 6.5 million journeys being supported by London’s famous red buses, and you’ll get a sense of how important public transit is to a city.

Throughout the world, public transport has changed the way people live. And autonomous public transportation could represent that next big milestone.

It could be that advancement to significantly increase the standard of life of those to whom public means of transport represent an affordable, convenient and often necessary alternative to driving.

But what will actually imply for the average commuter? In other words, how can autonomous cars augment the world of public transportation as we know it today?

And when can we expect to be able to board the first self-driving tram or bus?

These are all things you can find out from this article, so keep on reading.

A Few Notable Autonomous Public Transportation Initiatives

To get a better grasp of how the world might look like with self-driving vehicles as means of public transport in it,  let’s take a look at some of the projects meant to put self-driving technology on the road: 

1. The GATEway (Greenwich Automated Transport Environment) Project

In 2016, UK’s Transport Research Laboratory (TRL) conducted a test of a fully electric, driverless shuttle in Greenwich, London which included:

  • door operation at different wind speeds and vehicle angles,
  • airflow near battery compartments,
  • component and sensor wind tests.

And in 2017, over a hundred members of the public were given a chance to ride in the first prototype driverless pod which used built-in sensors and autonomy technology to avoid obstacles.

2. Nevada Autonomous Bus Project

In partnership with California-based company Proterra, The University of Nevada, Reno kickstarted a project which involves three main stages:

  • Stage 1: where a sensor-laden, passenger-carrying electric Proterra-built bus will travel 3-mile route along a busy street to gather info. A human driver will be in full control during this step.
  • Stage 2: in which researchers will use the data collected during stage one to build self-driving systems.
  • Stage 3: is all about commercialize and licensing the tech.

The plan is to put a live autonomous bus on the road by 2019.

3. Beverly Hills’s program to develop autonomous vehicles as public transportation. Read all about it here.

4. Self-Driving Ubers. You can read more about it here

Autonomous Vehicles in Public Transit: How Will They Change the World

Now that you know more about some of the projects meant to transform the public transport landscape, let’s take a look at some of their possible impacts.


  • Safety. This is one of the leading drivers for autonomous public transport adoption.  An overwhelming 90% of accidents which occur on the road are caused by human error. Artificial Intelligence systems excel at performing the kind of monotonous tasks which require ongoing attention, something which human drivers so often fail at.


  • Reduced traffic congestion and, thus, less time spent commuting. Commuting into a big city can be a nightmare, but the next generation of public transport aims to change that. By using GPS technologies to efficiently route vehicles through traffic jams, driverless systems are supposed to expand roadway capacity and reduce congestion.


  • Lower operational costs. By reducing travel time, autonomous public transportation can also lower fuel costs.  Other potential cost-saving domains refer to those related to personnel, as some of the tasks usually performed by human drivers will be fully-automated. And this could ultimately translate into more affordable fares for passengers.

In theory, a world with autonomous transportation is a safer world with cleaner air, less traffic and cheaper yet enhanced services.

However, we can’t talk about the benefits without acknowledging some of the challenges as well.

Possible Concerns

  • Widespread adoption of autonomous vehicles will inevitably kill jobs. The public transport sector employs millions of people. And for some of those, autonomous vehicles could mean them losing their jobs. For instance, there will be less need for drivers and mechanics due to reduced crash rates. However, the adoption of AVs (automated vehicles) could also create the opportunity for new jobs in AV design and development, and infrastructure.


  • Security risks and technical hazards.  In addition to the threat of self-driving vehicles being hacked and used for criminal purposes, autonomous public transportation could experience glitches and failures due to unforeseen environmental factors.


  • Lack of clarity. From the possible environmental consequences to the legislation implications, there’s are still many things which need to be defined and regulated when it comes to autonomous cars as means of public transport.

The Bottom Line

The needs of the modern world are continually changing and expanding – so it’s only natural that the transport system would change along with it.

Soon, it will no longer be a matter of imagining a world where autonomous public transport will be the norm.

It will be a matter of reality, and by the looks of it, it will happen sooner than anticipated.

In fact, we may start to see autonomous public transport vehicles on the roads as early as 2019. 

Philipp Kandal