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Lounge through the city.

  • 4. August 2016
  • Autonomous Driving
  • Photos: Daimler
  • Text: Walther Wuttke

World premiere in Amsterdam: Daimler presents its Mercedes-Benz Future Bus. Relaxing for passengers, driving autonomously and with internet on board.

When it comes to the city bus of the future, the designers at Daimler envisage creating a pleasant atmosphere that by itself is enough to encourage passengers to travel by bus. In the past, regular-service buses have radiated about as much charm as the official and functional term “local public transport” would suggest. The focus has been on efficiency rather than comfort and the person being transported has tended to look forward to the end of their journey before they even climb aboard. On the Mercedes-Benz Future Bus the travel experience is intended to be completely different. “Our aim is for members of the public to want to travel by bus, rather than feeling it’s something that they ought to be doing,” explains Mathias Lenz, Head of Design at Daimler Buses.

' Our aim is for members of the public to want to travel by bus, rather than feeling it's something that they ought to be doing. '

Mathias Lenz, Head of Design at Daimler Buses

Spectacular world premiere in Amsterdam

Daimler Buses showed how this semantic distinction translates into an innovative concept when a spectacular technology platform made its world début in the Netherlands in July 2016. There the first city bus of the future drove along Europe’s longest BRT route (BRT = Bus Rapid Transit) in Amsterdam. On the test track, the Future Bus also demonstrated how innovative design solutions can provide a completely new travel experience. The creative minds at Daimler came up with a vehicle design based on the Citaro, which has been around for approximately 20 years and which introduced design thinking to this segment at that time. The Citaro has since become a global bestseller and forms the basis of the prototype.

Even on the approach to the stopping point on the test track, just one look at the technology platform with its new confident front section and light bars next to the central Mercedes star tells you which driving mode the bus is in: white stands for manual control, blue for autonomous. The panel in the area above the driver’s seat also indicates the switch has been made to autonomous driving, whereby the driver “simply” acts as a supervisor but is able to intervene at any time if the situation requires. Observant passengers will seek exterior mirrors in vain – instead the bus looks back using “mirror cameras”.

A feeling of spaciousness means less jostling

To facilitate boarding and alighting from the vehicle, the designers have given the Future Bus two centrally positioned, double-width doors with luminescent bands visible on the outer wall – red for exit, green for entrance – which help to avoid tiresome pushing and shoving. While the outer skin of the Future Bus is reminiscent of the Citaro with large glass areas, the vehicle interior represents an entirely new concept. Never before have city bus passengers been transported in so much style and in this kind of ambience. “We wanted to create an open space where people can feel like they are in a park,” says Lenz to explain the design concept.

Immediately after boarding customers validate their tickets using the electronic ticket system. This reduces the load on the driver who no longer has to sell and check tickets.

Once inside the bus, passengers can position themselves in accordance with their needs. Anyone making a short journey will remain in the middle where grab rails branch upwards like trees towards the ceiling. This “express” area is designed for users who are travelling for just one or two stops and who will be spending only a short time on the bus. Like all passengers, the bus’s connectivity means that they can access the internet at any time. According to Lenz, “The Future Bus is a mobile wifi hotspot.”

' The Future Bus is a mobile wifi hotspot. '

Mathias Lenz, Head of Design at Daimler Buses

Less stress thanks to innovative design

The concept vehicle’s design idiom was adapted to the location where it was unveiled. For example, the scratched effect on the floor is intended to evoke Amsterdam’s frozen canals in winter. Two 43-inch monitors in the express area provide route information to passengers. As in the front section, a light bar indicates the driving mode that the bus is operating in.

 

The lighting design creates a pleasant atmosphere with the ceiling lighting resembling a leaf canopy and therefore continuing the park-like theme. This can help to reduce stress for some passengers. “We have deliberately used our lighting concept as a design element,” explains Lenz.

High-quality seat shells for increased comfort

At the rear, there is an area for travellers who are making longer journeys. In the “lounge” area nothing is like it would be in an average city bus. Customers sit opposite one another in seat shells, which somewhat resemble chairs by the designer Charles Eames and which are considerably broader than conventional seats. The design fits with the premium materials selected by Mathias Lenz and his team. It is uncertain whether they will also prevent vandalism. In any case, they create an environment in which there is little to remind us of conventional buses. “We deliberately set out to provide high-quality furnishings,” says Lenz.

 

 

In the 'lounge' area nothing is like it would be in an average city bus.

 

 

 

Autonomous driving enables interpersonal communication

The designers also consider there to be a third area at the front next to the driver. “In the year 2012 we asked ourselves what the bus of tomorrow could look like and it quickly became clear to us that autonomous driving would be an important theme,” says Lenz when describing the story of how the Future Bus emerged. Thanks to autonomous driving, the driver now can also help passengers in the front “service” area. Signs warning you not to talk to the driver will then become a thing of the past. In future, analogue interpersonal communication will once again occur at this point.

The Mercedes-Benz Future Bus successfully completed its first autonomous journey in traffic on a route in Amsterdam covering approximately 20 km. On part of Europe’s longest express bus line, the vehicle can travel at up to 70 km/h, come to a precise halt at bus stops and traffic lights, move off automatically, pass through tunnels, brake for obstacles and pedestrians on the road, and communicate with signalling systems. Daimler Buses is the world’s first manufacturer to put a city bus into automated operation in a real-life traffic situation.

Prometheus: Research with foresight

At Daimler there is a tradition of pioneering technical achievements, particularly when it comes to optimising automotive safety. Starting with innovative brake systems in the 1920s through to the ABS anti-lock braking system and the anti-skid ESP electronic stability program, and ranging from the invention of the safe occupant cell (commonly known as the crumple zone) to the PRE-SAFE electronic assistance system – the inventor of the motor car has always been a leading innovator. At present Daimler is the world's only manufacturer to be testing autonomously driving cars, trucks and buses in everyday operation and to have already brought this technology to standard production vehicles to some extent, as in the latest E-Class. In Amsterdam the developers have now demonstrated an autonomously driving city bus which, thanks to its innovative engineering and design, will completely redefine local public transport in the years to come. A few weeks before that, a truck convoy travelled autonomously from Stuttgart in Germany to Rotterdam in the Netherlands to show that platooning can significantly improve the environmental and safety record of commercial vehicles. The latest E-Class is already showing how semi-autonomous driving can relieve the strain on drivers.

Mercedes-Benz started developing autonomous driving back in 1986. This was a Eureka moment for the European Community, which launched a research initiative of the same name at that time. The PROMETHEUS Project instigated by Daimler-Benz was the key element within the Eureka initiative, with the acronym standing for the PROgraMme for European Traffic with Highest Efficiency and Unprecedented Safety. According to Greek mythology, Prometheus was the creator of mankind and provided us with fire and some other intelligent assistance systems for our continued survival. He therefore deserves his name meaning 'forethought', although his actions do mean he made enemies as well as friends in Olympus.

All leading European manufacturers and suppliers were involved in the research programme at the instigation of Daimler-Benz, as well as numerous academic institutions. These companies and institutions were primarily concerned with the issue of how to improve road safety in spite of the ever-increasing number of vehicles on the road. In 1984 10,199 people were killed on the roads of Germany. A concurrent aim was to find out how the flow of traffic could be optimised without harming the environment by building new roads, even though the number of vehicles registered kept rising and had reached some 30 million in Germany by 1984.

Given the complexity of these issues, it quickly became clear to the responsible parties 'that there could be just one solution to the growing traffic problems. We had to integrate new technologies – above all microelectronics, sensor systems, telecommunications and information processing – in road traffic as comprehensively as possible,' explained Walter Ziegler who was at that time PROMETHEUS project manager at the Mercedes-Benz research institute. The first electronics for use in motor vehicles arrived on the scene back in the 1970s and were incorporated ever more widely from the 1980s.

The solutions that were ultimately presented to the public in 1994 are impressively up-to-date. They included solutions for driver status monitoring, lane keeping, collision avoidance, an autonomous and intelligent speed and proximity (or 'cruise') control system, an automatic emergency call system, as well as solutions for fleet management and travel and traffic information systems. Of the 27 functions which were presented at that time, 13 subsequently went into standard production. Prometheus was indeed extremely foresighted and was one of the most successful ever European research initiatives. Intelligent cruise control was the system that made it to standard production the fastest and has been part of the standard equipment as DISTRONIC and DISTRONIC PLUS since the mid-1990s (initially in the S-Class). Technical innovations such as the Lane-change Assistant, the automatic PRE-SAFE Brake or the electronic parking aid also originate from this research programme and form part of present-day specifications at Daimler.

As part of the PROMETHEUS Project, exceptionally spectacular test vehicles were built in close collaboration with Professor Ernst Dickmanns from the University of the German Armed Forces (Bundeswehr) in Munich. For the first time these vehicles were able to drive long distances autonomously. In 1994, a suitably equipped Mercedes-Benz 500 SEL covered some 1000 kilometres around Paris. In the process, the saloon vehicle stayed in its lane at speeds of up to 130 km/h, maintained a constant distance behind a vehicle in front and was able to complete a lane change independently after the indicator had been actuated. This sounds familiar and like the latest E-Class. Back then the achievement was even more significant given the extremely modest computing performance of microprocessors at that time by comparison with the present day. Another test drive was conducted from Munich to Copenhagen. Mercedes-Benz was the only automotive manufacturer at that time to have mastered autonomous driving.

The technology for these spectacular past journeys was known as VITA, which stood for 'Vision Information Technology Application'. This autopilot controlled the brakes, the accelerator pedal and the steering. On the test vehicle, small video cameras behind the windscreen and rear window were used to supply the on-board computer with all the important vehicle-related information. For the first time a computer identified the course of the road and recognised whether the test vehicle was at risk of colliding with other objects. In a technological first the PROMETHEUS sub-project proved that automatic collision avoidance was possible. However, the technology came at a (high) price, which prevented it from entering into standard production for a long time. Meanwhile, autonomous driving is now primarily reliant on radar sensors. Autonomous driving was actually a by-product of the task that had been defined: 'Automatic collision prevention was the key target of this PROMETHEUS sub-project. We definitely did not intend to replace the driver with VITA,' explained Berthold Ulmer who worked in Daimler-Benz Vehicle Research at that time. The researchers primarily wanted to prove that accidents can be prevented by means of computer vision.

There is a tradition of futurology at Daimler and that is why research continues to be conducted into innovations to improve road safety and to minimise the environmental burden. Developing appropriate drive systems is an important aspect of this. 'Daimler deliberately opts not for a solitary type of powertrain for tomorrow's mobility, but for a coexistence of different technologies. These are optimally tailored to the particular customer needs and vehicle models,' says Prof. Thomas Weber, member of the board of management responsible for research and development, giving an outline of tasks for the future.

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