Driverless bus bound for Newcastle after federal government backs council's Smart Move strategy

An Olli driverless bus such as this one could operate in a trial at the University of Newcastle next year.
An Olli driverless bus such as this one could operate in a trial at the University of Newcastle next year.

A driverless bus will operate in Newcastle, possibly next year, as part of a $15 million digital innovation partnership involving the council, federal government and private enterprise.

Private transport operator Keolis Downer and Newcastle City Council will trial a small autonomous bus at the University of Newcastle and could expand the technology elsewhere in the city.

The federal government announced on Friday that it was providing $5 million to help fund the council’s Smart Move Newcastle strategy for making travel throughout the city easier. The council and a group of industry and research heavy hitters are contributing $10 million.

The council requested and received $5 million from the government’s $50 million Smart Cities and Suburbs Program. More than 170 cities applied, and Newcastle’s allocation was the largest.  

Other projects in the strategy include an electric vehicle hub at the fringe of the city centre as a park-and-ride, with chargers for electric cars and e-bikes for hire; bus stops with technology to provide users with real-time information, such as how long until the next bus and how many seats will be available; roads and intersections with real-time traffic analysis; and parking sensors to provide data on available spaces.

Keolis Downer’s head of growth, innovation and partnerships, Jonathan Myers, said the driverless bus could be a French-built Navya or a Local Motors Olli vehicle with about 14 seats. It would run around the university’s Callaghan campus picking up students and staff.

“There’s still a way to go in terms of legislation and regulation, so we’ll probably start on the university campus. I think that’s what’s envisaged,” Mr Myers said. 

Keolis Downer’s Jonathan Myers at NewSpace on Friday. Picture: Simone De Peak

Keolis Downer’s Jonathan Myers at NewSpace on Friday. Picture: Simone De Peak

“It would be in a non-public environment, but with people and other things going on, and then as the technology’s proven and the legislation and regulation is developed, we envisage it could be employed as a shuttle up and down Hunter Street.

“It could be on the foreshore, Honeysuckle Drive, and not just as a technology stunt. The idea is to have a proper use case.”

The company has been trialling driverless buses in the French city of Lyon, Paris, Las Vegas and at La Trobe University in Melbourne.

Its Las Vegas bus was involved in an accident in its first hour of operation last week when a truck driver backed into it.

“At least it wasn’t the autonomous vehicle driving into the truck. That would have been embarrassing,” Mr Myers said.

“We want to understand how people react to it, how would they use it, would they pay to use it, does it go fast enough.

“Some people are excited and love it and are fired up by it and didn’t think this would happen and can’t believe it. Others are hugely sceptical, don’t want a bar of it. 

“Part of the reason for doing these trials is to broaden the understanding and test what is it that people are concerned about, what can we improve. Do people need to register or can anyone turn up and go. What does that mean for insurance. It’s more those sort of details we need to get right.”

The inside of an Olli autonomous bus being trialled by Keolis Downer in the US.

The inside of an Olli autonomous bus being trialled by Keolis Downer in the US.

Keolis Downer also plans to introduce electric or hybrid electric buses on its Newcastle network.

“Fully electrics now are viable, and we think from the modelling we’ve done there is a case, on a whole-of-life basis, with the relative cost of electricity to diesel,” Mr Myers said.    

Mr Myers said the company’s plans for an on-demand bus service could be combined with the driverless bus trial.

Smart Move Newcastle partners

Keolis Downer

University of Newcastle

Eighteen04

RDA Hunter

Research partners

CSIRO Energy

Data61

Industry partners

Cisco

KPMG

Telstra

Schneider Electric

Ampcontrol

Quantum IT

Obelisk Systems

BYKKO