How Volvo's Autonomous Bus Will Make Cities Cleaner, Greener and Smarter

Volvo’s autonomous electric bus has made its debut, and it could spark a new era for city dwellers. The company unveiled its 40-foot 7900, which it says is the first of its kind in the world, earlier this month at a Singapore university test site. If successful, it could lead to an era of cleaner, greener, smarter fleets that make cities more hospitable places to live.

“I often get the question, in a full autonomous world, when everybody can ride in the autonomous little egg, is there really a need and a future for public transport?” Håkan Agnevall, president of Volvo Buses, tells Inverse. “If we travel one by one, we will not resolve traffic congestion.”

Under Agnevall’s vision, autonomous technology is not just for falling asleep at the wheel of a five-seater Tesla sedan. It’s about improving safety, boosting the smoothness of operations, and making service more efficient for all. There will still be bus stops with routes even with autonomy, avoiding the chaos of hundreds hailing a bus at every point on a street, but peoples’ journeys will be augmented with new kinds of machines.

“It’s all about creating flow and passenger flow,” Agnevall says. “Then if you have a kind of last mile type of smaller connection system, that could be much more bespoke.”

Will the city of the future have space for everyone?
Will the city of the future have space for everyone?

It’s a vision that may have found its moment, as “Mobility as a Service” apps seek to thread fleet-sharing and other modes of transport together for future city dwellers through one simplified interface. The United Nations estimates that the number of people living in cities will jump from 55 percent in 2018 to 68 percent by 2050. BP also predicted that the number of passenger cars on the road will double to nearly two billion by 2040, while another study in the journal Cell placed the date at around 2030.

The problems with increasing vehicles on the road are already surfacing. Average car speeds in central London are just six miles per hour, which Agnevall partly blames on the number of parcel delivery vehicles on the road. Autonomous technology could make them run at all hours of the day, while electric technology could unlock more night shifts.

“Today you cannot drive diesel trucks during nighttime because of the noise,” Agnevall says. “But if you have a noiseless truck, you can use it to see the distribution at nighttime, and then it’s not going to block the traffic during daytime.”

The 7900 could become a common sight in this future city. It’s a joint project between Volvo Buses and the Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. The university has tested autonomous vehicle technologies since 2012, and work on the bus started two years ago.

The bus in action.
The bus in action.

Although the 7900 requires no human intervention, Volvo has decided to use a safety driver ready to take over at a moment’s notice. Agnevall says that “in general applications, it will take several years” to remove the driver fully, but for “certain applications, like depot driving, it can come sooner.” That sounds like a small change, but Agenvall notes that around 40 percent of bus damage occurs in the tiny depots, meaning such a breakthrough could reduce accidents.

On the specs side, the bus checks a lot of boxes you’d expect from a regular city vehicle. It seats 36 and supports a further 57 standing. Its all-electric design uses 80 percent less energy than a diesel car equivalent, and it pairs with an HVC 300P charger developed by ABB to deliver 300 kilowatts of power and get the vehicle ready in three to six minutes.

The autonomy is powered by lidar, stereo vision cameras and a satellite navigation system that Volvo describes as “like any GPS” with centimeter-level accuracy. A gyroscope and accelerometer measure the bus to ensure a smoother ride. These advancements feed into each other and benefit the whole company — although it’s important to note that Volvo Cars is a separate company, so vehicles like the Tesla Model 3 competitor Polestar 2 won’t use the same underpinnings.

“We approach this new technology as a group,” Agnevall says. “We have a common platform that we share between different applications and vehicles, trucks, buses, construction equipment. And there’s going to be more happening in this technical space in the coming 10 years compared to the previous 30 or 40 years. So it’s truly exciting times.”

Unfortunately, the timelines for the bus’ release are unclear. Volvo aims to run initial tests on a short test route along the campus roads, testing a second bus in the depot of Singapore’s public transport agency SMRT, but plans for a wider release have not been announced.

“The autonomous journey is a complex one,” Agnevall says. “So it’s gonna be a staggered approach but the development is really coming and it all starts on safety first”

With Mercedes-Benz exploring autonomous buses on the streets of Amsterdam, and a smaller shuttle transporting passengers in Las Vegas, the 7900 could debut on a road with all manner of different-shaped smart vehicles.