De Lijn coming back with self-driving buses by 2026

Flemish public transport operator De Lijn is pulling plans for self-driving buses in cities off the ice again. A pilot project will be developed in Leuven to have an operational connection by 2026. There is talk of 15 to 20 vehicles in an initial phase, possibly expanding to 80.

So, this is not the first time De Lijn has explored the possibilities of self-driving buses. A few years ago, there was already a feasibility study on self-driving buses in partner cities Antwerp, Genk, Leuven, and Mechelen. However, at the end of 2020, it was decided not to go ahead because the technology was not sufficiently on point then.

There were also plans for a self-driving bus at Brussels Airport, with even a prototype, but that project was eventually called off.

Rapidly developing technology

That the plans are now being picked up again by De Lijn is remarkable, precisely because De Lijn is currently under fierce fire for abolishing bus stops and outdated buses that regularly break down, while it also appears that the Flemish people have increasingly neglected public transport in recent years – in the period 2021-22, public transport accounted for 4% of the number of journeys in Flanders; in 2019, it was still 7%.

The plans are being resumed after a four-year hiatus because De Lijn expects autonomous transport to grow and become more important soon, including for public transport.

“Currently, we are noticing an acceleration in the development and implementation of this technology worldwide,” says De Lijn. It expects that “in the longer term, autonomous transport will make it possible to offer efficient and attractive public transport for many more Flemings”.

Pilot project in Leuven

Once again, a pilot project will be launched with the city of Leuven to explore how an autonomous, urban shuttle connection can be implemented in Leuven. De Lijn has already launched a call for candidates to work out the pilot project, even though the trajectory that the self-driving buses will drive on public roads “in complex traffic environments in full interaction with other road users” is not fixed yet.

Selected candidates will be able to submit tenders later. According to the preliminary timing, the contract will be awarded to a constructor in the second half of 2024. Tests will be conducted during 2025, and effective passenger service will be launched in the second quarter of 2026. Conditional, as much depends on further technological developments and the price tag.

‘Opportunities for our society’

“We must embrace technological progress and innovation,” said Flemish Mobility Minister Lydia Peeters (Open Vld) in a reaction. “Autonomous transport offers our society opportunities. Not only in terms of ride quality and road safety but also as a new industry we need to be on. In addition, we need to ensure that in terms of regulations and infrastructure, we are ready for autonomous driving in the future.”

In May last year, the world’s first self-driving bus rolled out in Edinburgh, carrying passengers on a regularly scheduled route. The project was rolled out by Stagecoach, Transport Scotland, and CAVForth – CAV stands for ‘connected autonomous vehicles’.

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