Cities play a significant role in digital development because they can often react more quickly than states. Also, on a smaller scale, people engaged in developing communities know it is crucial to make the best use of local resources unique for each municipality.
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 such as electric bikes and safe crosswalks with smart-controlled LED lights. The new ambitions in the driverless transport sector are joining together the forces of organisations in the region: 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 under ZeroEST centre and some under Autonomous Driving Lab (ADL), some of them under Hydrogen Valley Estonia. Taken together, the goals of the region seem much more tangible.
Tartu has started 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, the City of Tartu, Modern Mobility, Bercman Technologies, Traffest and the University of 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. 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 Matiisen. “It would make much more sense to link the car up directly to the digital signal. We did this, and the next tests can start one step ahead.”
Before letting self-driving cars into the street, Tartu created a digital twin of the city where the vehicle could 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 cooperating with Auve Tech, an Estonian autonomous transport developer,” Matiisen reports. “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.”
Matiisen and other partners hope such infrastructure will attract other autonomous mobility developers into the region.
But Tartu’s ambitions are not only terrestrial. 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.
Tartu City Strategy 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.
In Tartu, hydrogen and urban aviation strongly feed into each other. The city represents 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 generating renewable energy to use cases.
Marek Alliksoo, one of the leaders of the Hydrogen Valley initiative, says that the only real bottleneck in the hydrogen transition is the need for more technology. “In many areas, we could move faster, but technology producers are all booked for years. We are keenly looking for our own Estonian developing startups that have grown out of the University of Tartu,” Alliksoo says. In addition to tech improvements, Tartu is developing a broader vision of the infrastructure for creating, storing and distributing renewable energy with the help of hydrogen.
One of the major projects where both road and air transport developments converge is Tartu’s testing and certification centre for driverless mobility. This project is currently looking for a suitable 20 hectares of space near the city where driverless cars and air-taxies could be tested and, importantly, certified before they are allowed into European roads and skies. The testing centre is already attracting global companies aiming to launch innovative solutions.
“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,” explains Alliksoo. “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.”
Tartu is the only Estonian city in the European Smart Cities Marketplace that envisions 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. “Considering the experience and ecosystem we have in Tartu, we are positive that we are able to provide the international community with an interesting site for testing and applying future technology,” notes Raimond Tamm, the deputy mayor of Tartu. “The future is not quite as far away as you might think,” Tamm believes.
Looking at the impressive array of cooperation, synergy, and projects launched during the last two years, he aims to be correct.