It’s only natural that the world’s first fully autonomous self-driving bus would come out of Finland. Finland, believe it or not, is often considered to be the ‘Silicon Country’ that gave the world Nokia and pretty much set the very blueprint for mobile communications. Nokia was founded in Finland, and for over two grand decades before Apple launched the iPhone, Nokia was the standard to beat. In fact, there’s a high likelihood that your first phone was a Nokia (I know mine was). Post-2010 when Nokia saw a slowdown, after which it was acquired and dissolved by Microsoft, these engineers and designers moved onto bigger and better things. The dissolution of Nokia saw the rise of companies like Rovio (Angry Birds), SuperCell (Clash of Clans), and even Sensible 4, the company that designed the software behind Gacha, the world’s first self-driving bus that was built to operate under any weather conditions.
Gacha was created in collaboration with MUJI, which provided the design language for the bus. Courtesy a partnership facilitated by Helsinki Business Hub (which promotes collaboration between international agencies and Finnish talent) MUJI, headed by Naoto Fukasawa, got in touch with Sensible 4, the brains behind the self-driving software. Since as early as the 90s, Sensible 4 has been working on self-driving tech. In fact, they even tested a functioning self-driving Jeep in 1993, but the computers inside it were so big, there was no place for humans to sit! The collaboration came about as Sensible 4 began plotting ways to make public transport more autonomous and frictionless. The idea for a 10-person bus that could navigate anywhere in any weather was born and MUJI immediately jumped on board to help bring the vision to life!
The name Gacha comes from a Japanese toy figurine often found in shops and malls across Japan. These Gachas would be inside a massive toy-dispensing gumball machine and once you put the money in and pressed a button, the toy would come tumbling out, encased in an almost spherical container. This container, which housed a human toy inside it, became MUJI’s inspiration for the Gacha, and the name stuck around too.
The Gacha’s dual-colored design is inspired by the toy container’s two-piece construction too. It features a soft, filleted design that immediately appears friendly and inviting, unlike the rigid design of buses, or the aerodynamic design of trains. The soft form helps break barriers by not creating a strictly defined wall or a ceiling. The curved, almost womb-like form immediately allows it to be perceived as friendly on the outside as well as the inside… a feature that’s very important, says Naoto Fukasawa, considering how daunting the prospect of a self-driving vehicle could be. The size of the vehicle is perfect too, allowing 10 people to be seated and an additional 4 more people to stand inside. The seating design is conducive to friendly conversation. Unlike most buses that have seats facing in one direction or individually designed seats arranged linearly, the Gacha has a running bench from left to right. It takes inspiration from the seating of saunas, a Finnish heritage and tradition, encouraging people to sit in groups.
Its size is crucial too, according to Sensible 4’s CEO Harri Santamala. The Gacha’s small size (coupled with its top speed of 40mph) is perfect for small shuttle activities. The bus is safe by virtue of its speed, and if and when demand for the Gacha increases, municipalities can simply deploy more vehicles on the road, rather than making larger vehicles that are more accommodating.
Lastly, the Gacha’s design is bilaterally symmetrical as a stroke of complete genius. With a design that doesn’t have a front or back, Naoto says that the Gacha can easily work in left-hand and right-hand driving countries. The headlamps and taillamps are integrated into a running LED strip around the waist of the car, and a simple flip within the software can allow the headlamps and taillamps to switch direction, allowing the bus to run easily on any side of the road without needing expensive hardware/build changes. The complete absence of a drivers cockpit or steering wheel means the insides are completely bilaterally symmetrical too, from the benches down to the in-bus displays.
Sensible 4 has been working on autonomous driving tech for virtually 30 years. With the Gacha, the company finally sees self-driving vehicles actually making their way to roads around them. How is Gacha different from other self-driving vehicles around the world? It’s the first self-driving vehicle designed to work in practically any weather condition.
Finland, aside from fostering an incredibly talented tech community (and also being one of the only two countries in the world to already have legislation in place for self-driving automobiles) also provides the perfect testing ground for self-driving cars, given its weather diversity. Far away from the sunny plains of San Francisco, Finland proves to be a complete obstacle course for the Gacha. It sees snow, rain, sun, hail, fog, and the roads are often challenging to navigate through, given that they could be snowed in, frozen and icy, or just plain uneven in suburban parts of the country. Sensible 4 has worked long and hard to develop a vehicle that can not only sense roads and obstacles, but even perform its tasks in inclement weather. The Gacha, equipped with a wide variety of sensors, cameras, and mapping systems, can travel through dense fog, heavy snow, and even torrential rain without breaking a sweat. It can navigate through roads using an onboard GPS and a map, sense traffic and signs/signals to travel in accordance with the law, stopping at red lights, zebra crossings, or even when there’s an obstacle in its path. In the snow, the Gacha knows exactly where speed breakers are, using a combination of radar, lidar, and sonar, and its intelligent AI can even map out alternate routes if roads are closed, unsafe, or even crowded.
A look at the way Gacha captures and processes its surroundings
The Gacha, ultimately, was designed to be a shuttle bus. Think about an Uber Pool for more than 4 people. It can operate within the city as well as to suburbs, picking up people who summon it and planning out its routes based on demand, using Sensible 4’s advanced algorithms. Rather than having a fixed route like a public bus, the Gacha can make diversions to pick up people who need to go to certain destinations, and with its 100km range and 6-hour battery life, can complete multiple runs before retiring to a nearby charging station for a quick recharge.
THE TEST RIDE
As a part of an exclusive team that got to view the unveiling of the Gacha, Yanko Design was given a rare opportunity to be one of the first to sit inside and ride the Gacha. The bus was unveiled on the 8th of March to the public of Helsinki, with a flag off from the deputy mayor of the city. It had snowed the day before, and as a result, the roads were slushy and slippery, and I remember everyone complaining about how miserable the weather was, while the Gacha team had quite the opposite reaction! They were more than happy to demonstrate the self-driving bus in undesirable weather and driving conditions. Unveiled at Helsinki’s newly built central library, the Oodi, the Gacha was made to drive within a cordoned off area for the public, including the press.
Stepping into the Gacha, I instantly remembered registering two reactions. My mind knew exactly what a big deal this was, to be sitting inside a vehicle that was operating on its own, with absolutely no instructions or controls from a present human… but at the same time, it felt like an incredibly familiar experience. You see, we’re used to something quite similar with a subway or a train. You don’t necessarily see the driver of the train you sit in. You just enter the compartment and stand there aimlessly knowing that the vehicle will complete its journey with you inside it, and your only job is to get off at your stop. That’s what the Gacha felt like too, and it’s an incredible win for the industry because it immediately helps remove any fear the public may have with self-driving cars. Practically the size of a large cable car, the Gacha moved around on its own as I, along with a group of journalists, sat inside, trying to register exactly what a big deal this was. There was immediately a sense of faith in the bus, and I doubt a car would have the exact same feeling because people are used to driving their own cars, but with a bus, you’re usually always a passenger.
The Gacha knew exactly where to stop, when to and for how long to open its sliding doors, and when to embark. It completed a circular journey around an empty plot outside the Oodi library, and plotted the exact same path without the presence of lanes, lines, or even a roadway. It stopped when a pedestrian happened to come close to it, and began immediately once the coast was clear. The LED strip around the Gacha did a remarkable job of letting people know exactly when it was going to stop, when it was waiting for boarding, and when it was going to depart. In every which way, the Gacha did exactly what it promised to do, with the intuition of a human driver, knowing exactly where and when to proceed.
The Gacha may be able to get from point A to B on its own, but it still has a lot of obstacles to cross. For starters, Sensible 4 is sending the bus (its only prototype as of now) to the northern laplands of Finland to operate under snowy conditions. The team will gather all the necessary data to make the Gacha work better and with lesser friction, no matter the weather. There’s also a major conversation around the presence of self-driving automobiles with regards to the dangers of the technology. The immediate fear is the loss of jobs, but in any advancing society, old jobs die to give birth to new ones. The deputy mayor of Helsinki believes that the Gacha will create new jobs with it. The second most important fear is the protocol in an undesirable situation like an accident or a calamity. While the Gacha is heavily optimized and speed-limited to avoid any accidents, it still remains to be determined what the bus will do in the event of one. Unlike humans who may flee a scene, the Gacha will have to be much more accountable and responsible, while also being responsible for the people within it. Given the Gacha’s 2021 debut date, we may finally get a clearer picture of the safety protocols of self-driving vehicles.
While the Gacha goes on its year-long test run in the city of Espoo, Sensible 4 is tasked with finding a hardware/manufacturing partner for the vehicle. With the design and technology in place, the company hopes to have governments of cities and municipalities invite it to become a part of the public transit system. The Gacha also has a lot of opportunities outside public transport. With the ability to work as a logistics vehicle, or even moving retail outlet like a grocery, or perhaps a MUJI shop (!) on wheels, the Gacha can don many hats, serving not just local governments and municipalities, but even corporations. Ultimately, the fact that the Gacha has the ability to travel in any sort of weather without the need of a driver, really allows the vehicle to seamlessly integrate into a variety of countries, cultures, societies, campuses, and even businesses. Designed to simply be a vehicle that will reliably get from point A to point B without any glitch, problem, or fuss, the Gacha has a universal outlook and appeal that seems lightyears ahead of its time!