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Mercedes-Benz Jumps into the Race to Automate Buses

The automaker has begun testing a self-driving bus in the Netherlands.

Even as the self-driving vehicle industry wrestles with the significance of the first known death while a Tesla Model S was in self-driving mode, one major automaker has begun testing an automated bus.

Mercedes-Benz began testing a self-driving city bus in the Netherlands as part of a bus rapid transit line serving an airport. The bus program puts Mercedes-Benz in line to become another competitor in the growing field of companies vying to provide automated urban transportation — recently Local Motors and Tesla announced projects that could put self-driving shuttles on city streets within the next several years. The Mercedes-Benz bus traveled about 12 miles without a human steering, braking or accelerating, though the company specified in a press release that the vehicle still needs a human driver.

“This semi-automated city bus improves safety, as it relieves its driver's workload and nothing remains hidden from its cameras and radar systems,” the statement reads. “It improves efficiency, as its smooth, predictive driving style saves wear and tear while lowering fuel consumption and emissions.”

Automakers and experts are looking to automation as a possible salve for many of urban transit’s ills, chiefly the age-old problems of getting people to and from the transit vehicles. Since computer systems could automatically calculate the best routes and coordinate between a fleet of autonomous buses or shuttles, transit could conceivably take passengers to their destinations instead of stops near destinations, and could pick passengers up on demand. On top of that, computers could coordinate different transit vehicles together so that a passenger on a bus doesn’t miss the train he or she is trying to catch.

Though the press release didn’t give a timeline for when Mercedes-Benz’s parent company, Daimler AG, planned to make self-driving buses available, a company representative told AutoBlog that the automated driving technology will be “tested, optimized and brought to series readiness throughout the next years.”

Ben Miller is the associate editor of data and business for Government Technology. His reporting experience includes breaking news, business, community features and technical subjects. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in journalism from the Reynolds School of Journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno, and lives in Sacramento, Calif.