Scotland is to host the trial of the first autonomous full-sized passenger bus fleet after Innovate UK announced funding to support a successful bid from bus operator Stagecoach along with partners Transport Scotland, Alexander Dennis Limited (ADL), Fusion Processing Ltd, ESP Group, Edinburgh Napier University and University of the West of England.

The trial – to begin during 2019 – will include five autonomous single deck vehicles which will run between Fife and Edinburgh across the Forth Road Bridge.

The buses – operated by Stagecoach East Scotland – will be used autonomously to Level 4 standard which means that a driver must remain on board during any journey in line with UK regulations.

Funding of £4.35million has been awarded by the UK Government through Innovate UK with additional investment from operator Stagecoach, Transport Scotland, vehicle manufacturer ADL, technology company Fusion Processing Ltd, and mobility services specialist ESP Group.

Once complete, the 11.8m ADL Enviro200AV vehicles will operate between Ferrytoll Park & Ride facility in Fife and the Edinburgh Park train and tram interchange. The bus will use both on-road and hard shoulder running, and will use the dedicated public transport corridor across the Forth Road Bridge that allows buses and taxis to use dedicated lanes between the M9 near Newbridge and Halbeath in Fife.

The autonomous buses will provide a service capable of carrying up to 42 passengers 14 miles across the Forth Bridge to Edinburgh Park train and tram interchange. With buses every 20 minutes this could provide an estimated 10,000 weekly journeys.

Work on the project is expected to get underway during the second quarter of next year at ADL’s manufacturing depot in Guildford with the first vehicles expected to go into service during 2020.

The project partners said: “We’re delighted to have been awarded this funding and we are excited to further test the potential for autonomous technology in the future within public transport using full size single deck buses, which so far has not been achieved anywhere else in the world.  Drivers will still be required on all vehicles at all time while in service for passenger safety and to comply with UK legislation.”

The Scottish Cabinet Secretary for Transport, Infrastructure and Connectivity Michael Matheson said: “This is a very exciting development and underlines the potential Scotland has when it comes to connected and autonomous vehicles.

“The Forth has been at the centre of engineering innovation over three centuries and it is fitting that it will be central to this next innovation in transport and our Programme for Government commitments to intelligent mobility.

“The deployment of these vehicles in Scotland will bring transformative change to the way we travel and work, as well as having a positive impact on the economy, the environment and safety.  This collaborative trial, using one of the country’s most iconic transport corridors, shows Scotland is very much open for business in this innovative sector.

“I very much welcome the strong Scottish contingent in the bid team and I look forward to following this project with great interest.”

Announcing the funding, UK Government Business Secretary Greg Clark said: “Autonomous vehicles and their technology will not only revolutionise how we travel, it will open up and improve transport services for those who struggle to access both private and public transport.  

“The UK is building on its automotive heritage and strengths to develop the new vehicles and technologies and from 2021 the public will get to experience the future for themselves.”

Stagecoach, ADL and Fusion Processing announced earlier this year that work was underway to trial the first full-sized autonomous vehicle within a Stagecoach depot.

Work on the vehicle is currently being carried out at ADL’s site in Guildford and the bus is expected to be ready for use at the beginning of 2019.

In the short term, the bus will be used in autonomous mode only within the depot environment, to carry out movements such as parking and moving into the fuelling station and bus wash.  Using self-driving vehicles within depots more widely could help improve safety, efficiency and space utilisation within the depot.

Stagecoach has made a significant investment in new technologies to improve transport for customers and make its services more efficient. It includes the UK’s biggest roll-out of contactless payment technology on buses, automated vehicle location systems to provide live bus information, and telematics technology to deliver smoother and more fuel efficient journeys.