Just weeks after Germany’s Federal Administrative Court ruled that cities can ban diesel cars, the city of Hamburg has announced a plan to launch a fully autonomous electric shuttle service. Project HEAT (Hamburg Electric Autonomous Transportation) will provide service starting in spring of 2019 in a trial operation that was established to determine the viability of the solution for the city.
“Autonomous vehicles will shape the mobility of tomorrow,” said transit operator Hochbahn CEO Henrik Falk (via Google Translate). “The Hochbahn wants to use the opportunities of this technology to make private car use completely unnecessary, at least in inner cities.”
The pilot is being run on a short 3.6 kilometer route with 9 stops where passengers can get on and off for free for the duration of the pilot. The 3 minibuses being used will be built by IAV and are 5 meters long with a carrying capacity of 16 passengers. The low capacity reveals that this is not a high utilization city route by any stretch, but rather a low risk low utilization fixed loop that can more safely be used for the pilot.
The first minibus will be delivered to Hochbahn in December with the remainder following in the spring. As you would expect, the minibuses will use an onboard array of cameras, sensors, radar, and digital communication to determine the best course to take. In a bit of a surprise, the pilot includes a significant amount of work to add sensors to streets as well though these may be more for remote monitoring than for the actual functionality of the system.
In addition to vetting the functionality of the autonomous system in a production environment, the pilot will be leveraged to help officials determine what the legal implications are of having a fully autonomous vehicle driving passengers around on public streets.
The project was funded by the Federal Environmental Ministry which expects it to cost 5.2 million euros for the duration of the pilot.
The announcement of the new fully electric system comes just days after the announcement by the German Federal Court that cities could directly implement a ban on older diesel vehicles. Hamburg was an early mover with the ban, blocking older diesel vehicles from two arterial routes in the city effective June 1st.
The ruling set a precedent for a wave of future cases after Germany allowed environmental groups to sue cities that are not enforcing Europe’s clean air regulations back in February. The suit was not welcomed by all and met fierce opposition from automakers looking to protect their customers and future profits from diesel vehicles.
The court in Leipzig ruled that no grace period was required, giving cities the authority to enact a ban effective immediately. The immediacy of the new ruling is likely to cause a flood of customers looking for plug-in hybrid and fully-electric options for travel to and from areas not serviced by local transit routes.
The courts recommended, but did not mandate, a phased approach to implementing the bans, starting with bans of the oldest, most polluting vehicles and similarly phasing in bans on newer vehicles to give residents and commuters time to adjust routines and trade up to cleaner vehicles over time.
The primary targets for the ban are older, more polluting diesel vehicles that do not comply with the 2014 Euro-6 emission requirement. The European emissions standards have continued to constrict since Euro-1 first went into effect in 1993 and offer consumers and regulators a common language to talk about vehicle emissions and compliance.
The new ruling is just the latest smudge on diesel and will inevitably push consumers away from not only older diesel vehicles, but from purchasing new diesel vehicles for fear of a ban in the future. What’s also likely is that the ban would push buyers and drivers to move towards taking mass transit or driving fully-electric vehicles as pressure to take near-term action to preserve air quality in cities and to combat anthropogenic climate change continue to mount.