The way people are gawking and taking photos at the stubby green contraption moseying its way up and down the center of Longyearbyen you’d think they’ve never seen a shuttle bus before. And they haven’t – at least not one where the “driver” is navigating it by programming its route into a computer while sitting on the rear bench.
The bus that arrived last Friday is getting a test drive as the first-ever autonomous vehicle in the Arctic, according to its driver/programmer and some of the numerous sponsor decals across its exterior. On Tuesday morning it was parked or moving slowly along the main pedestrian walkway through the town center where, for once, the miner’s statute nearby was of secondary attraction to passer-bys.
“We’re doing this to see if we can do a pilot project here in Svalbard,'” said Jonny Haugen, project and development engineer for Applied Autonomy, the company responsible for the vehicle. “I believe it’s because it’s new technology, it’s green and it’s an electronical vehicle.”
A public presentation and free rides along the walkway with Sparebank1 as the boarding point are scheduled from 12:30 to 6 p.m. Thursday.
While eye-catching, autonomous shouldn’t be confused with smart or particularly well-suited for Arctic conditions.
“The bus will only go where it’s programmed to,” Haugen said. “It’s almost like a tram line on wheels.”
He said the programming process includes driving the shuttle up and down the walkway “so it makes a map of the route.” The vehicle uses GPS and other technology to plot the data.
The bus has a maximum designated capacity of 12 people, half of whom can sit on front and rear benches, two on “stand-up seats” along the center walls and four standing up.
A possible test route if the pilot project is approved is between Svalbard Airport and the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, Haugen said. Some other seemingly obvious possible routes, such as between the airport and the center of town, aren’t an ideal fit.
“This is made for trips of less than three to five kilometers because the maximum speed of it is 40 kilometers an hour,” he said.
Among the advantages of using the airport as a hub is it has free electronic vehicle charging ports installed when the facility obtained solar panels and its own electronic vehicles for use a couple of years ago.
The shuttle bus has four relatively small wheels for its size and the length of the body is perhaps 25 centimeters above the street surface, so don’t look for it on days like Monday when a blizzard brought heavy snow and strong winds to the area.
“At the moment it probably can’t drive in those kind of snow conditions,” Haugen said, noting efforts are underway to make the shuttle more suitable for poor weather conditions.
The company has another shuttle in operation in Kongsberg between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. daily, Haugen said. similar vehicles are also in use throughout parts of Europe, Singapore, the United States and elsewhere.
The project is receiving financial support from Innovation Norge, with Sparebank1, and the municipalities of Longyearbyen and Kongsberg. Operations and technology work is being provided by Applied Autonomy and Svalbard Buss og Taxi.