‘Pleased to be among the first’: Self-driving buses to be tested in Israel

“We are pleased to be among the first in the world to bring autonomous vehicle technology and public transport together,” said Ran Shadmi, director of the National Public Transport Authority.

By Brian Blum, ISRAEL21c

Would you hop on a bus without a driver? Israelis will have a chance to do just that, as four corporate consortiums have been selected to run Israel’s first autonomous bus pilot.

The pilot program will run for two years with an investment of about $18 million – half from government funding. Upon completion of the program, the winning groups are expected to operate bus lines commercially using self-driving vehicles.

The pilot has two stages.

In the first, the companies will test autonomous buses in a closed experimental area with the aim of proving technological, regulatory, safety and business feasibility.

In the second stage, the autonomous buses will move to public roads. The distance the buses can travel will increase during the two-year pilot.

The buses will initially require a “safety driver” in place behind the wheel in case something goes wrong. Ideally, this requirement will be dropped once the safety of the buses is assured.

The pilot will also help the government to map the required infrastructure for operating a fully autonomous public transportation system in Israel, as well as to test the business capability of public transport operators.

The advent of autonomous public transportation addresses two problems any Israeli who relies on buses will immediately recognize: traffic congestion and lack of manpower.

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The four winning consortiums are:

– Metropolin, B.G. Motors and Ottopia (Israel), Karsan (Turkey), Adastec (Michigan), Applied Autonomy (Norway). Metropolin is one of the largest public transport operators in Israel. The technology companies in the group have experience with previous autonomous public transport pilots in Michigan and Norway.

– Egged and a leading French technological company. Egged is the largest public transport operator in Israel and one of the largest in the world. The French company has run autonomous pilots in some 20 countries.

– Dan, Via Enigmatos and Ottopia (Israel), EasyMile (France). Dan, another of Israel’s top public transit groups, was an early leader in providing on-demand public transportation vans through its Bubble Dan subsidiary. EasyMile has run autonomous minibus services in urban areas around the world.

– Nateev Express and Imagry (Israel) – Nateev Express runs buses in Israel; Imagry is developing a software platform for autonomous driving. It is currently running a pilot with a driverless shuttle on the grounds of the Sheba Medical Center.

“We are pleased to be among the first in the world to bring autonomous vehicle technology and public transport together,” said Ran Shadmi, Director of the National Public Transport Authority.

“There is still a long way to go but we have no doubt that this initiative has the potential to improve the service and the passenger experience on public transport and to improve the safety levels.”

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Ami Appelbaum, chairman of the Israel Innovation Authority, focused on how this pilot can help the Israeli tech economy.

“In the emerging era of software-driven mobility, Israel has a leading position in the field of smart and autonomous mobility. The number of Israeli startups in the field of smart transportation has increased from 400 in 2016 to more than 600 in 2020. The most significant growth has been in the number of autonomous vehicle startups established, with an average annual increase of 26% during this period,” Appelbaum said.

He added that, since 2008, “more than 20 of the biggest car manufacturers in the world and their suppliers have opened development centers in Israel, including GM, Honda, Volkswagen, Ford and more.”

The ultimate goal: To “eventually turn Israel into a world leader in autonomous public transport pilots enabling Israeli companies to become global leaders in this sector.”