UK to Pilot Driverless Vehicles
The technology to make driverless cars a reality is upon us. Most auto-manufacturers are well on the way to developing their own autonomous vehicles, and we are seeing ever more sophisticated driver-assist systems introduced each year. Meanwhile, Google has already successfully demonstrated driverless cars in the U.S., covering over 300,000 miles without major incident. The question now for the industry, and indeed for the world’s governing bodies, is how best to introduce the technology into our transport systems in a safe and practical manner.
Source: Automotive Council UK
Earlier this month the U.K. government committed £1.5 million to a driverless car project which will be tested in the town of Milton Keynes. By 2015 twenty driverless electric ‘pods’ will travel around the town on designated pathways separated from pedestrians, primarily transporting passengers from the railway station to the town centre. By 2017 there will be 100 fully autonomous pods sharing pathways with pedestrians, and using cameras and sensors to avoid collisions.
Something of a halfway house between a shuttle service and the full deployment of driverless vehicles, this is an interesting project which will aim to gain insights into how driverless vehicles will be accepted by the public, and how the transport infrastructure will need to be developed to accommodate them.
The pods will travel at a maximum of 12mph and carry up to two people. The initial twenty are likely to be designed with a steering wheel or joystick allowing the passenger to take control of the vehicle, giving people a chance to acclimatise to the technology, but future models will be completely autonomous.
Customers will be able to book and pay for pods via a smartphone app, and there is likely to be just a small charge to use the service with a figure of around £2 being suggested. Without the worry of concentrating on the road, passengers will be able to take advantage of the pods Wi-Fi connectivity and access news, entertainment, emails and the internet while on their journey.
Video source: YouTube channel for the UK government Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS)
The exact specification of the pods is yet to be announced, although frontrunners appear to be Ultra Global, the company behind the driverless pods at Heathrow airport. Those pods use lasers to follow a 2.4 mile pathway from the business car park to the main building at Terminal 5, recharging when stationary between journeys. The pods in Milton Keynes will take the technology a step further with the introduction of cameras, sensors and GPS, to navigate their way along pedestrian pathways.
Along with the local authority, early partners in the project are engineering consultancy firm ARUP, Transport Systems Catapult, The Automotive Council, and Oxford and Cambridge universities.
Looking to the future
Milton Keynes is perhaps the ideal town for such a scheme as it is relatively newly-built, is based on a grid system with wide fairways, and already has clearly designated pedestrian and cycling pathways. For this reason, many observers have already questioned how well the system could be adapted to other towns and cities with less than ideal layouts, and the research project must address these issues if similar schemes are ever to be rolled out nationally.
However, the potential benefits of a system of electric pods for city travel are very clear. Congestion in cities could be massively reduced if commuters were able to use a network of pods for daily travel, rather than driving. The electric pods are also zero-emission vehicles, and with carbon emission reduction targets looming on the horizon, their widespread use could represent a significant saving in emissions from our city roads. Road safety is another key issue with driverless vehicles, but as the technology is tested and developed it is becoming more and more evident that computers are potentially much safer drivers than people.
Speaking about the scheme, UK Business Secretary Vince Cable said, "By 2050, very few – if any – new cars will be powered solely by the traditional internal combustion engines, so it is important that the UK is at the cutting edge of low carbon technologies…Driverless cars are another invention that has the potential to generate the kind of high-skilled jobs we want Britain to be famous for, as well as cutting congestion and pollution and improving road safety."
Although the technology for driverless cars is already here, there is a legislative minefield to navigate before we are ever likely to see them on our roads, not to mention issues associated with vehicle-to-infrastructure communication and vehicle-to-vehicle communication. The project in the UK is a refreshingly practical solution to the problem of the integration of driverless vehicles, and could be a forerunner for similar carbon-zero inner-city transport systems in the future.