A first for First as first autonomous bus begins

Saturday 4th March 2023

Another new bus route began on Thursday.

It’s been given route number 001.

Operated by First Bus on a 15 minute headway it takes just under a quarter of an hour to complete its circular loop around the swish business park in Didcot known as Milton Park operating for almost 12 hours from 07:00 to 18:30 Mondays to Saturdays using a zero emission Mellor Orion E minibus.

So far so ordinary.

But this is no ordinary bus route.

It’s the most extraordinary one you’ll currently find in the UK.

Not only is the Mellor battery electric bus zero emission, it’s fully autonomous, driving itself on roads around Milton Park used by other traffic.

I took a ride around the circuit on Thursday afternoon, the very first day an autonomous bus has been let lose on UK roads carrying “ordinary” members of the public rather than special invitees. It truly was a first for First Bus and felt quite special to be on board and witness such a historic event.

The timetable has a half hour break mid afternoon so I arrived at the terminus bus stop outside Bee House on the Milton Park estate at 15:30 to travel on the first journey back in service.

And sure enough, right on time the bus appeared with Michael overseeing the controls in the cab as the short section of road around Bee House itself where the bus stop is located isn’t programmed for autonomous driving.

On board was Tim from Fusion Processing “the UK’s leading developer of automated driving software and systems” who was keeping an eye on how the software was performing.

There was also a supply of leaflets with lots of information about MI-LINK and the MultiCAV project.

It’s a free service for everyone so I got on board and took a front seat to savour the ‘hands off’ view and belted myself in with Michael explaining seat belt wearing is mandatory as a safety precaution.

Once we’d got on to Park Drive, the main spine road through Milton Park, Michael switched from manual to autonomous mode and we glided along at a steady sedate pace in the estate’s 20mph zone with hands off the steering wheel and feet off the pedals.

I’ve seen hands free driving many times on various guided busways around the country, but this was the first time I’d witnessed it on an ordinary road with other traffic. It was impressive, if slightly surreal.

Michael explained the software is programmed so the bus will stop at every stop as it’s not clever enough to know if anyone is waiting there or not.

So we duly stopped – perhaps a little abruptly I thought – at the first bus stop on the circuit albeit stopping a few yards short of the shelter and pole.

Having demonstrated that, Michael explained he can override the automated stopping which he did for the rest of the journey as there was no one to pick up.

I thought after maybe there should be a request stop button to push in each bus shelter with a link to the vehicle as on ScotRail’s Far North Line’s request stations!

The circuit includes a couple of roundabouts with the bus detecting any other traffic on all approaches simultaneously – there wasn’t any – so it proceeded as normal… but then Michael stepped in to complete the manoeuvre by manually steering the bus as it turned out a fuse had just blown and we were no longer in autonomous mode.

Tim was on the case as the same thing had apparently happened earlier in the day and he’d been able to fit a new fuse. This time he had to head off to Halfords to source another one as well as thinking there must be something not quite right for it to blow twice. This fault hadn’t arisen in any of the extensive previous test trials reaffirming the inevitability of new technology teething troubles to be expected with such an innovative project of this kind. Indeed, that’s the purpose of this latest phase of the trial.

We carried on our circuit only to then come across what is a bit of an obstacle to the success of the project.


The obstacle being a section of carriageway closed for roadworks with three way temporary traffic lights, and just to complicate matters further, were stuck on red. Technology eh?! Thank goodness for human beings.

Michael was in command and got us through the red light explaining while the software would stop the bus on approaching the obstacle it wouldn’t be programmed to take avoiding action. So it was a good job Michael was on board otherwise we’d still be there waiting for the roadworks to be cleared away.

We were soon back at Bee House and Tim went off to buy a fuse while Michael got ready for his next trip albeit in manual mode – which was a shame as three employees came out of the office block to give it a go but went back inside on hearing the autonomous mode was temporarily off.

It gives an indication of the intrigue this trial will create and I suspect many of the 9,000 employees who work in Milton Park will be giving the bus a ride in the coming weeks to check out the novelty aspect of it. That is, after all, the object of the trial, to gain real life bus operating experience as the actual route itself isn’t of much use to anyone as it only loops round the business park itself.

However, this is just phase one of the trial. In a few weeks phase two will see the route extend to Didcot Parkway railway station which is a five or six minute ride to the east from where Thames Travel buses already provide a frequent service through Milton Park.

This should really challenge the software as the roads are proper public roads which are much busier, particularly trying to exit the bus stop area immediately outside the station. The driver of the bus on route X2 I took to reach Milton Park had to wait quite some time for a break in the traffic to exit and then only because a passing taxi gave way. I can imagine an autonomous bus might sit there for ages. Unless the driver intervenes – but doesn’t that rather ruin the idea of it being autonomous and ultra safe?

It’ll certainly be interesting to see how that phase of the trial goes and I look forward to reporting on this when it begins. Phase two is followed by phase 3 when First Bus will add a full size Switch MetroCity single deck on to the route which has been kitted out with all the necessary cameras and sensors, as this Mellor Orion has.

This project is being part funded by the DfT’s Centre for Connected and Autonomous Vehicles (CCAV) which has chipped in £3 million as well as the commercial partners involved including First Bus who’ve also all contributed around £1.3 million.

First Bus is providing the drivers – six have been trained on a rota based in Slough – although the bus parks up overnight locally in Milton Park where the batteries are charged rather than heading back to Slough each night.

The leaflet answers the question “What can we gain from autonomy?” by explaining “running any type of vehicle is not cheap and this is equally true of buses. If we can find a way of reducing that operating cost, we will in future be able to extend the range of public transport to places where it is currently simply uneconomic and unaffordable to provide – either by commercial bus companies or funded by local authorities.”

The problem with offering an olive branch of that kind is it assumes the “operating cost” of a driver will be saved. It won’t. I may be a bit of a Luddite but I can’t ever see a time when a bus will be out in service on the UK’s public roads without a member of staff on board. The driver may be relieved of routine driving duties as technology takes on much of that role, but that’s as far as it’ll go. I believe it’s called Level 4 autonomy – ie with a staff member on board ready to take control.

It’s a fascinating project though and I’m sure many aspects of the technology will become standard on new vehicles in years to come particularly to enhance safety and for use in off road settings like bus garages. Well done First Bus for being at the forefront of this innovation and getting it on to public roads first.

Not far behind is Stagecoach which will soon have its autonomous trial ready to roll on a 14 mile route between the Ferrytoll Park & Ride and Edinburgh over the old Forth Road Bridge. It’s recently been announced this project is being extended to take in Dunfermline using an autonomous version of the next-generation Alexander Dennis Enviro100EV electric bus alongside the five existing Enviro200AV buses fitted out with the necessary equipment.

This is thanks to another £42 million funding from the Government’s expanding CCAV fund (with matched funding from industry partners) which sees seven more projects with Stagecoach involved in the two involving buses – a £6 million project providing a shuttle between the University of Sunderland and the Royal Hospital and one I’ll certainly be watching …. “a trial of on-demand self driving taxis to compliment existing transport services in parts of Cambridge”. That’s receiving £17.4 million – £8.7 million from the CCAV fund and £8.7 million match funding from industry. I understand up to 13 vehicles are envisaged. DRT and autonomous vehicles, can’t wait.

Interesting times.

Roger French

Blogging timetable: 06:00TThS

24 thoughts on “A first for First as first autonomous bus begins

Add yours

  1. I was involved in the EU CityMobil2 project. Its most impressive achievement was a demonstration in Trikala, Greece, where six small buses ran round an on-street City centre circuit, controlled by one person sitting at a desk with a PC.

    This was 2015, and they had to put traffic signals on various junctions because the vehicles couldn’t decide when to pull into traffic.

    Public acceptance was high (there is published material on this)

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Sorry, but I cannot see the point of all this excitement about autonomous buses. What’s the point? There is still the need for a driver, as you say, Roger. I would much rather be was using his skills and driving the bus safely and swiftly.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Most interesting read, and about the pop up roadworks! How long would you be waiting without the err backup driver. And on busier roads how long does the wait for a gap that in real life nobody but a few of us let a bus out of a bus stop or a junction. BTW spelling “mandatory as a safety prcuation.”


  4. I agree with Petras409 at 8.17am.
    Whatever title you give the on-board official, he/she will still have to be trained to drive the vehicle in emergency, so will presumably be paid the drivers’ rates.
    So what is the point?
    With essential bus services up and down the country being threatened by the current shortage of funds, it’s a pity that some of the money being invested into this experiment could not be diverted to save a threatened traditional bus service depended upon by many.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I would have thought it would be far more sensible to focus on driverless trains which operate in a very controlled environment

    A driverless bus which cannot cope with unexpected obstacle’s is not really a lot of use

    I think it is decades away before we see genuine driverless buses

    My view is they are running far to many trials of a technology that is not yet ready to roll out

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Driverless trains will only happen in the UK in a very restricted way in areas such as the Thameslink Core which is already ATO; the open line is nowhere near as controlled an environment as people like to believe.

      A particular issue will be the absolutely huge number of footpath crossings, many of which are overgrown and almost completely forgotten but still legally open which means that a formal closure would be required – and we all know what happens whenever the railway tries to close anything which isn’t used: mass protests by the people who never actually use them!

      We won’t see genuine driverless trains on the open line for decades; they’ll be restricted to the really highly controlled areas such as Metros in tunnel.


  6. Electric Buses

    Norfolk County Council has received £11.,5M to buy 55 Electric buses

    Portsmouth City Council and Hampshire County Council will get £6.8M to buy 28 electric buses

    West Yorkshire will get £5.7M to buy 25 electric buses

    City of York will get £1.9M to buy 9 electric buses

    I assume there must be some matched funding coming from somewhere as I doubt the funding above is adequate

    The electric Buses in Inverness ran into problems in the winter. They were running out of power about half way through the day

    If it something they should have been foreseen. It caused considerable disruption to the services

    Batteries are very temperature dependent. At low temperatures they hold a lower charge and take longer to charge as well

    In winter as well the heater will be going full blast consume power. Ice and snow will also mean they consume more power

    I winter they need to assume a 25% to 50% reduction in range


  7. I agree with your suggestion about the ‘request stop’ arrangement, as per ScotRail. In fact that request mechanism could usefully be installed at ordinary bus-stops; I have heard people saying that they don’t use buses because they’re not sure the bus will stop for them, and I myself – an experienced bus-user – have missed a bus: as it was late, I checked the timetable, which was facing the ‘wrong way’, so I didn’t see the bus at the critical moment! There are so many perceived uncertainties about catching buses, that getting rid of one obvious one would be very worthwhile.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Lighting at bus stops can be an issue, too. The stop is quite often use is urban but quite far from a street light, so it’s quite hard for drivers to see waiting people. I too have been left behind. So I carry a tiny torch to illuminate my face as the bus approaches.


    2. MIssing my bus home from school at the age of 6 through not hailing it at the request stop was cured by a diagnosis of short sight, and I have worn spectacles ever since!


      1. There are of course London drivers who ignore the compulsory stops unless someone rings the bell … they should be phased out.


  8. Interesting times indeed. My first reaction a few years ago on hearing about such a concept, was who ensures passengers make the correct payment, if at all? Some already take longer to purchase a simple ticket than I have arranged mortgages, so if this type of operation is to be extended any further than developments such as Milton Park, a staff member is always going to have to be on board.

    Once more, such schemes have been designed by the “tech-crazy” generation who probably need an app to remind them to get out of bed in the morning, and assume the rest of us think along the same lines. And who will answer all the innumerable questions passengers can think up to ask in their efforts to delay the bus as they board?

    And why Milton Park, which is very amply covered by existing Thames Travel/Oxford services, and even more oddly, operated from Slough. I know it is pointless railing against “progress”, as these things will inevitably happen at some time in the future, and in a World some of us are already beginning not to recognise.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. If I ‘flash’ an autonomous bus to let it in on the road in front of me, will it still wait since it senses my presence is too close to it? How will it differentiate between a ‘flash’ and normal running lights?

    Liked by 2 people

  10. On a tiny route, not programmed to deal with request stops and temporary traffic lights stuck on red both seem to be pretty reasonable requirements (the latter less so, admittedly). I don’t think bus drivers qualifying today will need fear for having a long career if they want it.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. I am as lukewarm to autonomous buses as I am to autonomous cars. I’m particularly suspicious of the claim that it will enable more services due to lack of drivers, as I haven’t forgotten the claim that computers would give everyone lots more leisure time!

    Liked by 2 people

  12. Is it safe on the bus how many people have been killed by driverless cars and driverless bus people will catch the bus because it will not be safe all that money we have Robot s running on the roads taking people shopping soon all cars and trucks and buses will be on road s in 2050


  13. So all the bus driver s will be on the dole money buses will driveless and the person just sit at home with a box and
    Take over the bus soon it’s going to show on the roads with no driver and passenger can not get of the bus people will die


  14. Well another huge problem is these electric buses are a lot more expensive to buy and to operate

    Given most bus services at present are only marginally profitable that’s a huge problem. At present the government i funding about of the cost of them. That though cannot continue for long

    Constant cuts to service and cancellations are not helping neither


  15. I think people are missing the point a bit. This is new technology – it’s an experiment and it’s fairly certain that what you see now WON’T be what you experience in 20 or 50 years’ time. The technology will evolve and become more established, and it will change. Experimentation is about understanding what will work and what won’t.

    The accusation of the “tech crazy” approach seems to be at odds with how the world is going. Go back 50 years ago… Could we have imagined a time when, instead of a trusty Setright or Almex A, you would get on a bus and pay, not with cash, but your phone? A mobile phone at that. That self-same ticket machine would allow you to “tap in and tap off” for your journeys, or would send a signal via a satellite to a digital display in a bus station to tell you if your journey was approaching. When I started work, the “computer” was a mainframe in it’s own airconditioned office; now you can sit on a bus and have a computer that’s a phone and can provide you with more information that you could scarcely believe possible. Technology starts somewhere, and whilst we’re not all enjoying rocket boots or hover boards, the experiments will test what it can or cannot do.

    As for the question of drivers ending up on the dole, this isn’t going to happen next week or next year. The demise of the conductor took nearly 70 years. Things will change slowly but change is inevitable. Go into any business now and have a chat with the girls in the typing pool…

    FWIW, I don’t see a day in my lifetime (I’m in my 50s) where we will see autonomous vehicles freely trundling about on public roads. However, a situation such as the Cambridgeshire busway with vehicles operating on the closed section autonomously, or used to automatically shunt vehicles in yards whilst connecting to overhead pantographs to charge batteries… that could happen.


  16. Also, considering some of the anti social behaviour in some areas, will the bus be delayed by ‘kids’ running back and forth in front of the vehicle causing it to come to a halt!


  17. In addition to the ScotRail style request -to-stop button at the bus stops, we could have an app on our smartphones that does the same thing. (Tongue firmly in cheek).


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: