Who's driving?

Putting driverless transport to the test

By Antoinette Price

Saving commuter time, money, the environment and eliminating human error are key reasons behind a number of projects trialing driverless car-like transport for congested cities.

Lutz Pathfinder
Lutz Pathfinder Pod (Photo: Transport Systems Catapult)

Pods for people

Driverless, fully automated transit systems which move along rail guideways are not new; they already transport limited to mass populations at airports including Tampa, Florida, London City, and in cities such as Singapore, Las Vegas and Vancouver, the latter being home to the longest driverless automated transit system in North America. Smaller automated pods and carts have also been tested in some airport zones, and companies like Google have already launched a number of driverless vehicles for roads only. But what about a more sophisticated driverless car, as a means of public transport, which could also negotiate pavements?

It's all done with sensors

Sensors are increasingly widely deployed and can be found literally anywhere. They are part of the technology which connects devices and systems to the Internet of Things in order to share data, and they are revolutionizing many aspects of daily life, such as healthcare and driving. That is to say, sensors make driverless technology possible.

IEC work in standardization contributes significantly to this technology. Manufacturers are able to build more reliable and efficient sensors and microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) thanks to International Standards prepared by IEC TC (Technical Committee) 47: Semiconductor devices and IEC SC (Subcommittee) 47F: Microelectromechanical systems.

Podding it round town

The race is on to develop usable driverless vehicles around the world to tackle congested cities. In four UK cities, prototypes are being tested with the aim of offering commuters, shoppers and the elderly clean, safe, driverless transport for short distances. The prototypes are part of a larger government backed Autodrive initiative and road regulations for testing the vehicles on British roads have already been authorized.

Great Britain is at the forefront of this emerging technology which could lead to what is estimated at a GBP 900 billion (USD 1,4 trillion)  industry by 2025.

Seating two people and luggage, the pod made by manufacturers RDM covers up to 40 miles at a top speed of 15 mph and runs for up to eight hours. Equipped with 22 sensors including panoramic cameras, laser imaging and radar, it can build a very detailed picture of its surroundings, as well as know very accurately how far it is from any object.

The pod’s sensory apparatus is linked up to a Macbook Pro in the back, which over three years will create 3D maps of its journey along the pavement between Milton Keynes railway station and the shopping centre.

Cutting edge pootling

Another vehicle that is part of the project is the self-driving Meridian shuttle, which looks like a longer golf buggy with no clear front or back and is operated by selecting a programmed route on a touch pad. Thank to radar, cameras, light detection and ultrasonic sensors, it can ensure its path is clear. Creators Phoenix Wings designed the vehicle in order to remove parked cars from streets and connect people between residential areas and transport points.

The future is not quite here

Want to hop a pod, kick back and read the paper to work in the quiet of your own vehicle? This day is still years off and the pod could eventually be something of a cross between a small bus and a taxi, but a number of challenges must first be overcome. Bad weather conditions hampering visibility or negotiating unpredictable pavements where pedestrians can appear out of nowhere spring to mind, however, the greater challenge will be getting the driving environment, people and regulations ready for change.

 Driverless train Canada Driverless train near Vancouver airport in Canada (Photo: Michael Berry, Wikipedia)
Lutz Pathfinder Lutz Pathfinder Pod (Photo: Transport Systems Catapult)
Meridien Meridian Shuttle, Greenwich (UK) (Photo: gov.uk)