Residents of Helsinki, Finland will soon be used to the sight of buses with no drivers roaming the city streets. One of the world’s first autonomous bus pilot programs has begun in the Hernesaari district, and will run through mid-September.

Finnish law does not require vehicles on the road to have a driver, making it the perfect place to get permission to test the Easymile EZ-10 electric mini-buses.

“This is actually a really big deal right now,” Harri Santamala, project manager at Metropolia University of Applied Sciences and the test project lead, told a local news outlet. “There’s no more than a handful of these kinds of street traffic trials taking place, if that.”

SEE: When will we get driverless cars? Experts say public opinion is the critical factor

The robotic buses could be used in addition to existing public transportation options in the future, Santamala said. “Their purpose is to supplement but not to replace it,” he added. “For example, the goal could be to use them as a feeder service for high-volume bus or metro traffic… In other words, the mini-bus would know when the connecting service is coming and it would get you there on time.”

Last year, Hernesaari’s neighboring Finnish city Vantaa deployed similar autonomous buses during a housing fair–but they only operated on routes shut off from other traffic. In contrast, Hernesaari is a more high-traffic area. People in cars will have to get used to navigating behind the robot buses, whose average speed is just over six miles per hour.

It’s not clear if EasyMile will have a safety driver or override system in place if something goes wrong.

The future of autonomous buses

The US is also making inroads on driverless buses: In October 2015, EasyMile made an agreement to pilot two of the driverless buses in an office park in San Ramon, CA. In July, Mercedes-Benz revealed its Future Bus, a semi-automated city bus that was tested on a 20 km track through Amsterdam.

In June, IBM announced that it was partnering with Local Motors to bring its Watson cognitive computing system to an autonomous vehicle called Olli.

Similar to the Finnish vehicle, Olli looks like a blocky miniature bus, and can transport up to 12 passengers. However, the IBM program isn’t actually powering the self-driving capabilities. Instead, it allows passengers to communicate with the bus while driving, by asking questions such as “Olli, can you take me downtown?” to start a trip. Passengers can also ask questions about where they are going, vehicle functionality, and for restaurant recommendations.

“Olli with Watson acts as our entry into the world of self-driving vehicles, something we’ve been quietly working on with our co-creative community for the past year,” said Local Motors CEO John B. Rogers at the time. “We are now ready to accelerate the adoption of this technology and apply it to nearly every vehicle in our current portfolio and those in the very near future.”

In the US, autonomous vehicle operation currently remains subject to state law. Nevada was the first state to authorize the operation of autonomous vehicles in 2011. Since then, seven other states–California, Florida, Louisiana, Michigan, North Dakota, Tennessee, and Utah–and Washington D.C. have also passed legislation related to autonomous vehicles.

Arizona’s governor issued a 2015 executive order directing various state agencies to “undertake any necessary steps to support the testing and operation of self-driving vehicles on public roads within Arizona.” In June, Virginia’s governor announced a partnership allowing research and development for autonomous vehicles.

These investments are also happening on a federal level. In January 2016, US Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx announced a 10-year, nearly $4 billion investment to accelerate the development and adoption of safe vehicle automation through pilot projects. The Department of Transportation will remove potential roadblocks to the integration of innovative automotive technology that can improve safety, mobility, and sustainability, a release stated.

Several challenges remain before we can expect to see autonomous buses with no safety driver carrying passengers in the US, said John Dolan, principal systems scientist at the Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon University and an expert in autonomous driving. Along with addressing the legal regulations, car manufacturers must find ways to cut the cost of such vehicles.

They also need to program in the number of difficult driving scenarios that could arise, and test each model’s ability to navigate such situations safely, Dolan said. Driverless cars that can operate on a highway are already on the market, including Tesla’s Model S. But, urban driving involves highly uncertain conditions, and any violation of traffic laws can create a problem for an autonomous car, Dolan said.

“It will take a long time to get to Level 4 autonomous driving, where you can read a book or go to sleep in the driver’s seat,” Dolan said. “We don’t have the reliability yet to ensure it will be safe.”

The 3 big takeaways for TechRepublic readers

  1. Driverless bus manufacturer EasyMile is currently piloting a driverless bus on the streets of Helsinki, Finland–making it one of the world’s first autonomous bus tests in an urban environment.
  2. The robotic buses, which only move about six miles per hour, could be used in addition to existing public transportation options in the future, creators of the technology said.
  3. Despite the pilot, it will likely be a long time before many autonomous buses are on the road, due to concerns over cost and safety, experts said.