Norway pioneered electric ferries. Now it’s making them self-driving

November 17, 2020
Climate Change
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With medieval origins and a quaint, colorful port, the low-rise Norwegian city of Trondheim doesn’t look very futuristic. But the former Viking capital is making waves with a pioneering transport initiative: a zero-emissions, self-driving electric ferry.
The small, autonomous ferry, which launches next year, works “like an elevator” says Erik Dyrkoren, CEO of Zeabuz, the company building and operating the boat.

Passengers on each side of the canal that separates the port and city center can press a button to call the boat to their side. The boat charges while it waits at the dock, fits up to 12 passengers as well as bicycles, and takes less than 60 seconds to make the crossing — saving pedestrians a 15-minute walk.
The ferry was developed in 2018 by researchers at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) as an alternative to a proposed bridge across Trondheim’s harbor canal. The prototype was a hit and NTNU commercialized its research, forming Zeabuz in 2019. It’s part of a larger movement exploring how to use waterways for more sustainable transport.

Reviving urban waterways

Around the globe, more cities are turning to waterways for public transport. Bangkok plans to have 30 new electric ferries in service by next year along with 5,000 electric water taxis; New York’s ferry system is expanding to all five boroughs; and in July, Uber announced it will launch boat taxis along the River Thames in London. It’s a good way to optimize existing space, says Susanna Hall Kihl, an expert in waterborne transport and founder of Vattenbussen, a research and advocacy organization for urban waterways.
“Historically, that’s how we traveled,” says Kihl, highlighting that most major cities were built on or near water. Reviving underused waterways to relieve road congestion is an easy solution, she says, as it requires minimal infrastructure compared to other transport systems.
That’s one reason Trondheim wants to support ferry transport, says Bård Eidet, Head of Business Development for Trondheim Municipality. With numerous coastal communities, he says there’s a cultural significance attached to boat travel in Norway. “Waterways have always been important transport routes, but lost ground as cars became more important,” he says.

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