They’re probably not as glamorous and spectacularly futuristic as self-driving cars, but autonomous shuttles have some interesting near-future applications that shouldn’t be easily dismissed.
As part of a public trial that will see 100 people travelling in a prototype driverless vehicle in Greenwich, London, we got to test “Harry,” a cute, symmetrical shuttle that is able to navigate the real-world environment without a steering wheel or typical driver controls.
“Using five cameras and three 3D lasers, the shuttle is able to locate itself on the map without GPS and to understand how it needs to move to reach its destinations,” Nick Reed, Academy Director at TRL, which leads the project, said.
“It also detects other actors on the scene (pedestrians, vehicles, cyclists) and comes to a steady stop if it detects something on its path.”
Safe and clean
Developed by British companies Westfield Sportscars, Heathrow Enterprises and Oxbotica, the shuttle seats four people but has a trained person on board who can use an emergency break if required.
The system uses Oxbotica’s Selenium autonomy software, which is basically the brain of the shuttle, along with an external management software. These two systems are distinct to mitigate risks of a cyberattack.
We board the shuttle on a two-mile riverside path near London’s O2 Arena which virtually recreates a commercial use of the service, connecting residential buildings to river bus, cable car and the hotel.
While inside, we can’t help but feel a bit restricted, but we’re told this is just a prototype and the final interior design is still in the works. Oxbotica hopes to roll out the system by 2019 in Greenwich, which is a particularly apt for choice for its transport hub.
A map near the passenger’s seat shows the path the shuttle is taking:
As the vehicle rides on a path established by a computer, it carefully slows down when navigating corners or when it detects people stepping into a 5-metre area in front.
At one point, a cyclist waves his hands in front of the shuttle, which immediately comes to a stop. It needs to be reactivated by a trained person on board.
The ride isn’t particularly exciting — as opposed to the self-driving one, for example — and that’s perhaps Gateway Project’s biggest strength.
We feel safe and relaxed as if riding on Heathrow Airport’s connecting shuttle.
As the vehicle slowly slides into the background, we chill and start chatting, at ease.
The developers believe the driverless shuttle could improve accessibility for the elderly, the disabled and improve the overall air quality in an urban environment.
More than 5,000 members of the public applied to take part in the trial but only 100 will have the privilege to try it in the next three weeks.
Over an eight-hour period of operation, a single shuttle will collect a massive four terabytes of data – equivalent to 2,000 hours of film or 1.2 million photographs.
“It is critical that the public are fully involved as these technologies become a reality. The GATEway Project is enabling us to discover how potential users of automated vehicles respond to them so that the anticipated benefits to mobility can be maximised,” Reed said.