Nearly all big cities suffer from congestion. These Norwegian companies believe that they have found a new public transport solution: zero-emission autonomous ferries that carry people across and along waterways.
“When we present our concept to major urban authorities all over the world, the response is nearly always a version of ‘why haven’t we thought about this before?’”
Erik Dyrkoren is the CEO of Zeabuz, a Norwegian company developing zero-emission autonomous ferries for public transport in cities. He is of the opinion that there is an obvious, yet untapped, solution to many urban transport woes quite literally floating around.
“Transporting people by road – and especially cars – is very inefficient in terms of space. Nearly every single city in the world is struggling with congestion. It’s not a problem you can solve by building bigger roads. And infrastructure for metros and trams is expensive to build. But while the roads are packed to their limits, the rivers and waterways are profoundly underutilised for transport.”
This is exactly what Zeabuz and several other innovative Norwegian companies seek to change. Their vision: a flotilla of electric, completely autonomous ferries transporting people across and along the many urban waterways of the world.
“We want to use waterways to make it easier to get around, not look at it as an expensive barrier,” says Ketil Solvik-Olsen, CEO of Hydrolift Smart City Ferries. Like Zeabuz, the company develops zero-emission autonomous ferries for waterborne public transport.
“Ferries are typically built one by one, tailored to each specific customer. That makes them a costly investment. Our goal is to make small and efficient, emission-free ferries that are available more or less off-the-shelf,” he explains.
“We’re just now approaching the stage where electric, small-scale and self-driving ferries are technologically and financially viable. We want to industrialise this to bring costs down. Our boat-building expertise will reduce the cost of the ferry in itself. And by using technology and automation to reduce the employee per customer ratio, ferry operations will become significantly cheaper. Thus, we enable more cities to make use of their waterways,” he elaborates.
Hydrolift Smart City Ferries
“If we make it easy to use the waterways, I don’t think people will give it a second thought.”
Hydrolift promises an integrated, emission-free ferry solution, including intelligent dockside charging solutions and varying degrees of autonomous operations and integration with smart city systems. At their simplest, these small ferries gliding back and forth across the river provide an alternative to using bridges, significantly reducing the time it takes for pedestrians to move around the city. This is worthwhile in and of itself, but Solvik-Olsen points out that waterways offer the potential to significantly expand the scope of public infrastructure.
“For example, if you are developing a new residential area just outside the city centre, you’d probably have to build up new roads and pathways or at least improve existing infrastructure. As the focus on sustainable transport grows, things like bike lanes are becoming a requirement. These are expensive projects, but if you can offer good, sustainable mobility solutions on nearby waterways instead, you can cut costs significantly and at the same time improve flexibility and travel options.”
Public authorities aside, there is another group that Solvik-Olsen will have to convince to get on board with sustainable waterborne transport: urban residents themselves.
“People tend to adapt quickly to the best and most practical mode of transportation. Previously, cars have given people the flexibility and availability they wanted. But when you give people the same flexibility and availability with public transport, most will make the switch.”
“Case in point: That’s exactly what we’ve seen over the past year or so in Norway, where the use of rentable, electric scooters has exploded in Norwegian cities.”
Hydrolift Smart City Ferries is now busy building prototypes and setting up pilot projects.
“We’re taking a stepwise approach, improving and expanding our solutions and services as we go. We are not going to revolutionise the ferry industry overnight , but we have significant technological and industrial expertise on board and have a clear vision of where we are going.”
Solvik-Olsen acknowledges that the level of autonomy allowed or desired may vary from country to country, and thus the ferry will initially be launched with a captain on board.
“We are ramping up the autonomy part gradually, as regulations and people’s acceptance develop. So, while our first ferries will ‘only’ be heavily automated, I am confident we will have a fleet of fully autonomous vessels in commercial operation within seven to eight years.”
The idea behind Zeabuz is to increase the ease, efficiency and sustainability of waterborne transport, complementing existing public transport infrastructure and lowering the threshold for people to walk or bike.
“With our solution, passengers will be able to summon the ferry with the push of a button, as if it were an elevator. In the first stage, it will go back and forth between two fixed stops on opposite riverbanks, but long-term we will likely add more flexibility,” Dyrkoren explains.
The Zeabuz solution will also include docking and charging facilities.
“We strive to make our docking facilities as small and non-intrusive as possible. The mantra is that it should be easy to install for our customers, requiring little in the way of extra infrastructure.”
When picking up passengers, Zeabuz ferries will connect to the charging dock automatically.
“With short bursts of automatic charging, we ensure that the service can run seamlessly for a long time without interruptions.”
“But we shouldn’t underestimate the role of aesthetics,” Dyrkoren cautions. “If the ferries look bulky or outdated it might turn people off the idea. Which is why we have invested quite a lot of resources into the design of our products.”
Zeabuz’ second prototype, which is being built at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, will be used as a test platform during the commercialisation process. It will begin service in a pilot project in the city of Trondheim in spring 2021.
“This will be the first project of its kind – in the world! We’re looking forward to testing various aspects of our concept. We’re continuously in dialogue with other cities to establish additional pilot projects. Although these projects inevitably involve some form of human supervision, we’re working towards a system that can run completely autonomously. That is where the real breakthrough lies: a digital, certifiable ferry captain,” concludes Dyrkoren.