By Karl Neuwinger

Like Sherlock Holmes’ “Mysterious Case of the Dog in the Night,” it is the sound you do not hear in Vienna’s Seestadt that may matter most – the hush of two driverless electric buses that took to the quiet streets of the city’s newest neighborhood on June 6.  These self-driving, exhaust-free vehicles are being tested by the Wiener Linien, the city’s public transit provider, with a view to their eventual deployment across the Austrian capital.

“Autonomous driving is a megatrend with the potential to change cities long-term,” said Wiener Linien boss Günter Steinbauer. “As public transportation providers, we will be at the forefront.”

The program is part of “Mobility of the Future,” the Wiener Linien, the Ministry of Transportation and several private-sector partners’ initiative to make public transportation more sustainable. The test buses will follow a two-kilometer circuit in the “urban lab” of Seestadt, a planned community created as part of Vienna’s Smart City strategy.

Two years in planning, the buses – built by French manufacturer Navya – are now ready to be tested on real passengers, dealing with stops and traffic on public streets. Its sensory systems will have to be trained to know whether obstacles are truly dangerous.  “Right now,” reported daily Die Presse, “it makes no difference whether the vehicle is in front of a concrete wall or the wind has blown a plastic bag in front of the sensor – either way, the bus stops.”  So each bus will still have a driver who can manually override automatic functions.

Travelling at a slow but steady 20km/h, passengers should enjoy a smooth ride, with heating for cold winter days and cool air for Vienna’s mid-summer scorchers. The buses will carry up to 10 passengers at a time and accommodate strollers, but will not be suitable for people in wheelchairs, for now. During the testing phase, the curious can ride for free, and regular bus service will continue on all routes.