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Berlin Tests Self-Driving Minibus at Charité Hospital Campus

by Nathan Eddy
BERLIN -- With temperatures in the low 40s and low, grey skies providing a stark contrast to the three yellow, almost cartoon-like minibuses parked on the campus streets of the Charité Mitte hospital campus, so began the inaugural test of the capital city's first self-driving vehicles.

A partnership between the federal environmental industry, Charité and BVG -- the government operator of Berlin's extensive public transit service -- has led to this moment, where buses on two routes on Charite's campus will carry students, patients, co-workers and the curious from stop to stop in a loop.

For the first phase of testing, an operator will be onboard at all times as a precaution, though early in 2019 the partnership plans to run the buses completely without BVG personnel.

Germany hopes this venture will prove a successful example of how safe, emissions-free (all the buses are electric) public transport can take city dwellers "the last mile" and serve the space between subways, bus and tram lines and the front door.

"We want to explore whether this approach will enable more people to switch to public transport and thus ease the burden on the environment," federal environment minister Svenja Schulze told a crowd of more than 50 journalists and curious passers-by. "The question also concerns the extent to which passengers accept autonomous driving, and what we can learn from this test and apply to the further use of these vehicles."

The vehicles sport the BVG's bright yellow paintjob with the beloved acid-trip seating covers inside, plenty of handrails, large windows, and a long rectangular display mounted on one side of the interior that shows stations along the route and the travel time between each stop.

A ramp for handicapped users is stowed away below the sliding glass doors, which open automatically at each stop or can be open and closed manually with the push of a button.

An additional, smaller display attached to a pillar dividing the two oversized windshield panes provides graphics and a speedometer -- the buses currently top out at under 8mph.

Despite the punctual start to the proceedings, not everything went completely smoothly: After the first minibus packed with smiling officials eased its way down the road, a second bus filled with journalists -- your correspondent included -- was delayed by a search for a missing key needed to operate the vehicle.

Yes, it seems that while the bus can drive itself, someone still needs to use a key to get the whole thing rolling.

Once underway, it was clear safety and caution are paramount concerns (in light of the recent Uber accident in Arizona, one could hardly ask for less risk-averse testing parameters) but the AV's speed often slowed to a crawl down narrow campus streets, while bikers swiftly pedalled past and an exasperated van driver behind the vehicle threw up his hands in frustration more than once.

"Es wäre schneller zu Fuß," ("It would be faster on foot") one journalist grumbled.

Nathan Eddy is a filmmaker and freelance journalist based in Berlin. Follow him on Twitter @dropdeaded209_LR.

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