The self-driving shuttles riding around on the domain of the Terhills Resort in Maasmechelen are now completely autonomous. The presence of a safety steward is no longer needed. The shuttle project is unique in Belgium and exceptional in Europe.
The vehicles were officially introduced in May last year in the presence of the Flemish Ministers Lydia Peeters (Mobility, Open Vld) and Hilde Crevits (Economy & Innovation, CD&V). They were introduced to transport visitors of the resort and bring them to the most important tourist attractions on the former mine site.
Terhills is located on the former Eisden mining site in the heart of the Euregio region. It covers approximately 365 hectares in Dilsen-Stokkem and Maasmechelen, on the edge of Belgium’s only National Park.
The shuttles cover a 2,5 km route passing by the Terhills Hotel, Elaisa Wellness, Terhills Cablepark, and the main entrance of National Park Hoge Kempen. Until recently, the shuttles still had a safety steward on board, just in case. “But our goal is to make them as safe as possible and be fully autonomous in the future,” said Dirk Torfs, CEO of Flanders Make at that time.
As save as human-driven vehicle
Today, they’re fully autonomous and no longer have a steward on board, but the bar is set high when it comes to safety. Tim De Ceuninck, Project Manager Mobility at Limburg investment company LRM: “Our self-driving shuttles must be at least as safe as a human-driven vehicle. An independent team of experts has been looking for potential safety risks and has fully reviewed the technology, processes, and the environment in which our shuttle operates. Then we got the green light.”
In technical terms, this means the Terhills shuttle now reaches ‘SAE Level 4 autonomy’, where a vehicle can drive without a driver in a well-defined geofenced area and under certain circumstances.
It will be monitored by a camera system enabling intervention if necessary. The project manager hopes to reach level 5 on short notice, allowing the shuttles to drive fully autonomously, always, everywhere, and in any circumstances.
Level 4 autonomy
Reaching level 4 autonomy is not only a technological achievement but also a crucial milestone: replacing human supervision with remote supervision saves costs and increases efficiency. LRM will evaluate the transition to fully autonomous driving in the coming weeks and then decides whether to permanently install the shuttle at Terhills.
Flemish Ministers Jo Brouns (Economy and Innovation, CD&V) and Lydia Peeters (Mobility, Open Vld) are proud to be ‘in pole position’ with this project. The latter will, therefore, start a task force before the summer to work on legislation.
LRM invests 4 million euros in this mobility project, which is also supported by the European Fund for Regional Development (Europees Fonds voor Regionale Ontwikkeling, EFRO, €790 000) and the Flemish government (€836 000).
The Terhills project is not the first experiment with self-driving mobility in Flanders. In November 2020, Flemish public transport company De Lijn which is one of the partners in the Terhills autonomous shuttle project, pulled the plug on an autonomous bus project in four cities (Antwerp, Leuven, Mechelen, and Genk) in Belgium.
Also, the city of Hasselt experimented with a self-driving shuttle, but hardly three weeks after its launch, the vehicle was removed from public grounds because it did not always react as it should – the shuttle ended up in the bushes – and was considered too dangerous for public use.
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