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Tartu aims to become the European capital of self-driving vehicles

Auvetech self-driving vehicle in Tartu

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Two years ago, we reported how the second-largest city in Estonia goes from “dumb” to “smart”. Now, the quaint university town of Tartu is aiming to be the European capital for self-driving vehicles. This goal might seem like an overtly ambitious aspiration for a rural town of 100 000 inhabitants. But is it, really?

Building on local resources

It is widely known that cities play a significant role in digital developments because they can often react more quickly than states. Also, on a smaller scale, people engaged in developing communities know that it is crucial to make the best use of local resources that are unique for each municipality.

Considering how much has happened since our last report, Tartu is a wonderful example of both. Naturally, Tartu is building on its previous success in achieving paperless administration, near-carbon neutrality for heating, and digital mobility solutions (electric bikes, traffic signs, smart-controlled LED lights). The new ambitions in the driverless transport sector are joining together the forces of the regional organisations: the University of Tartu, Estonian Aviation Academy, Tartu Science Park, and a plethora of companies, some of them grown directly out of the university.

Building upon this, Tartu City and the Municipalities of Tartu County have put in motion a series of pilots, tests and development projects, some of them under ZeroEST centre, some of them under Autonomous Driving Lab (ADL), some of them under Hydrogen Valley Estonia. Taken together, the goals of the region seem much more tangible.

Self-driving and on-demand regional transport

To start with, Tartu decided to experiment with on-demand transport in the region. Organising a regular bus route in its sparsely populated surroundings is unreasonable. But according to Tambet Matiisen, Head of Technology at the ADL, this challenge was a perfect opportunity for self-driving cars: it is often easier to achieve driverless mobility on smaller highways than in dense urban settings. Combining these considerations, and with the participation of several technology companies, Tartu ran a widely popular experiment between 26 on-demand stops connected by 66 km of roads.

This pilot provided both the city and other participants with valuable information about future challenges before such a transport system could be applied more widely. Mr Matiisen recalls, for example, how they quickly realised that using traffic lights for navigation is suboptimal.

“It would be quite silly to take the signal from the traffic control centre, translate it into green, yellow and red traffic lights for human use, and ask car cameras to react to those,” says Mr Matiisen. “It would make much more sense to link the car up directly to the digital signal.”

“We made traffic light signals machine-readable over the internet, and it turned out to be much more reliable than camera-based detection. Now the next tests can start one step ahead.”

Besides other useful insights into developing mobility of the future, one of the stepping-stones, before a self-driving car was unleashed on the streets of Tartu, was creating a digital twin of the city where the car would be able to practice. This, along with meticulously mapped streets, proved to be valuable not only in the context of the pilot but for other interested parties.

“We are regularly in touch with AuveTech, an Estonian autonomous transport developer,” reports Mr Matiisen. “Since they are located in Tallinn, it would be difficult to get their vehicles to Tartu for each test run. But using such a digital twin is much more feasible.”

Both Mr Matiisen and other partners are hoping that such infrastructure would attract other autonomous mobility developers into the region.

Climate-neutral local and regional aviation

But Tartu’s ambitions are not only terrestrial. In fact, experts argue that driverless mobility will be first achieved in the air because aerospace is missing the most hard-to-predict component for sensors – namely, pedestrian traffic. And when it happens, Tartu hopes to be among the first ones to experience this.

Again, the ambition is not unfounded. Tartu is the representative of Estonia in many European initiatives, such as the European Commission’s Sustainable Urban Mobility Planning (SUMP) framework and the European Clean Hydrogen Alliance (ECH2A). These platforms are creating obvious synergies in achieving clean energy production and reduction of emissions from the transport sector. In the field of hydrogen, for example, Tartu played the leading role in compiling the nationwide Hydrogen Valley ecosystem, which hosts over 30 projects ranging from the generation of renewable energy to use cases.

Talking about the tangible results, one of the leaders of the Hydrogen Valley endeavour, Marek Alliksoo from the Steering Group, says that the only real bottleneck is in the shortage of technology.

self-driving Tartu

“Since the EU has taken the goal of increasing hydrogen output 10-fold during the next three years, hydrogen technology is in short supply,” says Mr Alliksoo. “In many areas, we would be able to move faster, but technology producers are all booked for years. We are keenly looking for our Estonian developers, all who have grown out of Tartu University”

In the meantime, Tartu is developing a wider vision of the infrastructure for creating, storing and distributing renewable energy with the help of hydrogen because Mr Alliksoo, who is also the Tartu County Manned and Unmanned Aviation Ecosystem Project Manager at Tartu Business Advisory Services, says that hydrogen and urban aviation strongly feed into each other. Tartu City Strategy now incorporates principles of Urban Air Mobility (UAM), that list the steps from regulation to city planning to smart city solutions that would pave the way for air taxis and cargo drones.

Test and certification centre for driverless mobility

One of the major projects where both road and air transport developments converge is the testing and certification centre for driverless mobility. This project is currently looking for a suitable 20 hectares of space near Tartu where driverless cars and air-taxies could be tested and, importantly, certified before they are allowed into European roads and skies. This is potentially interesting for global companies aiming to enter the EU market.

“The test site would incorporate not only a physical space but also the aforementioned digital twin of the city, as well as a portion of the city that would operate as a live lab”

“Car and drone producers need to know that their vehicles can function in the snowy and rainy conditions of Northern Europe. But not only on the test site, but the whole city infrastructure from traffic control systems to hydrogen recharging stations would support unmanned transport testing on the roads and in the air of the city of Tartu,” explains Mr Alliksoo.

self-driving tartu hydrogen bike

“We are the only Estonian city in the European Smart Cities Marketplace who is envisioning such a future and also the only city from Estonia to have been selected for the European Commission’s mission 100 Climate-Neutral and Smart Cities by 2030,” comments Raimond Tamm, deputy mayor of Tartu who has lent his full support to taking Tartu’s digitalisation to the next level. “Considering the experience and ecosystem we have in Tartu, we are positive that we can provide the international community with an interesting site for testing and applying future technologies. The future is not quite as far away as you might think.”

One has to admit that there are several technological, legal and financial hurdles to be crossed before this future arrives. Still, looking at the impressive array of cooperation, synergy and projects in Tartu during the last two years, the aims of the city might not be unreachable after all.

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