Be afraid, Ralph Kramdens of the world, be VERY afraid: Shanghai's imminent experiment with driverless, magnetically-guided, electric-powered buses could be the start of a new urban transportation revolution.
The buses are manufactured in China and are designed to be the hardware portion of Mobility, a transportation research program developed by RCA and Capoco Design of the United Kingdom. Each bus employs proven bus/coach technology of which China has excelled for some time. The 11-seat (plus one wheelchair space), 24-passenger coaches feature lightweight aluminum frames with huge glass windows on the sides and roof - one would hope they're air conditioned in the summer.
Since the buses are to follow a prescribed route with no deviations, the driver has been replaced by magnetic “nails” embedded in the roadway. An onboard navigation system accesses GPS satellites to determine its precise location and “intelligent cruise control” software adjusts the electric motor's speed while avoiding traffic.
In another quantum leap in public transit protocol, passengers will be able to call the nearest bus from their mobile phone and arrange to have it stop at a particular place along the route... sort of like pushing a button and waiting for the elevator to arrive.
The focus on real-world transportation issues are a contrast from the Ultra PRT driverless shuttle system currently in operation at Heathrow Airport's Terminal 5 in London and is more ambitious than existing driverless transit schemes such as the Detroit People Mover, the Phileas bus rapid transit system in the Netherlands or the Transpole mixed bus, tram and a driverless metro system in Lille, France.
The Chinese concept for driverless public transit is meant to replace city street buses, not augment them, though the trial project is limited to Shanghai's Minhang District. Local planners specified the buses should be constructed so that two or more trailer sections can be quickly added to cope with the morning and afternoon rush hours.
Naturally, bus drivers (and their unions) can't be overly thrilled with this new development in urban mass transit. We haven't asked any drivers in person but it's safe to assume their response will be “to the moon, Alice!!” (via M.I.C Gadget, cnBeta, TrendHunter, and Cleantech Investor)