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Technology could be the future of urban transport, say ministers

Pedestrians in Milton Keynes will soon be sharing space on the pavement with driverless pods ferrying passengers around and which are said to herald a “science fiction future.”

If the trial of the concept – due to begin in 2015 and last two years – is successful, it could be rolled out to other cities in Britain, transforming the urban environment and the way people get around.

The Milton Keynes trial is a joint initiative between publicly funded body the Automotive Council UK, Cambridge University and engineering firm, Arup.

A similar system, developed by a Bristol-based company, is already in operation at London Heathrow Airport to ferry passengers to and from the Terminal 5 car park.

The same business, Ultra Global PRT, is involved in the development of an urban transit system in India that also uses driverless pods.

According to The Sunday Times [£], the trial of the system in Milton Keynes will cost £65 million. Initially, the vehicles will be equipped with either a joystick or steering wheel, but as the trial continues, these will be taken out and the vehicles will be fully self-driving.

By the end of the trial, 100 pods will operate in the Buckinghamshire town, and once the scheme becomes fully operational trips will cost £2 per passenger, which will be paid using a smartphone app, says the newspaper.

It is hoped that would raise £1 million in the first 12 months of going fully live, more than enough to cover the initiative’s running costs.

While full details are not yet available, it adds that the vehicles will have sensors to avoid collisions with objects or people on the pavement and will have a maximum speed of 12mph.

It also says that they will have 360-degree HD cameras and will talk to each other wirelessly to ensure they don’t run into each other and are also spread evenly around the system, which will take passengers to and from Milton Keynes’ railway station, shopping centre and local offices.

Business, Innovation and Skills secretary Vince Cable, who through his ministerial role acts as co-chair of the Automotive Council UK, commented: "It is important that the UK continues to innovate and is at the cutting edge of new technologies.

“Driverless cars have the potential to generate the kind of high skilled jobs we want Britain to be famous for as well as cutting congestion, reducing pollution and improving road safety.

“This investment goes to the heart of our industrial strategy which is giving the British automotive industry the tools it needs to plan for long-term growth and international success."

Education minister David Willetts said that the trial was crucial for the future of the British car industry and that it represented a glimpse of “a science fiction future” that is now within reach.

“In 25 years we will look back and be amazed at how much time we used to waste driving ourselves places,” he went on.

“We will be hopping into a car that will drive us to the cinema, where we will tell it, ‘Park yourself and come back and get me at 10.15pm.’”

He added: “One aim is to see if driverless cars are safer, so we can cut road traffic accidents. They don’t get drunk or drive under the influence of drugs, they don’t get exhausted and fall asleep.”

The Sunday Times says that prior to the trial commencing, legal issues such as liability insurance and whether vehicle occupants are responsible for it while travelling will need to be addressed.

It is hoped that ultimately, the vehicles could transform Britain’s city centres, which could become further pedestrianised, but the law would need to be changed if they were to be allowed on the country’s roads.

Google and Volkswagen are currently trialling driverless cars, although those are based on full-scale vehicles that take to the public highway rather than the pavement-based, two-passenger model envisaged for Milton Keynes.

The vehicles could be similar in look and mode of operation to the Personal Rapid Transport (PRT) pods that have been used at London’s Heathrow Airport since 2011 and which are shown in the following video.

The PRT pods at Heathrow do have two essential differences from those envisaged for Milton Keynes, however – they carry four passengers, not two, and have a maximum speed of 25mph.

A graphic accompanying The Sunday Times’ article suggests that the battery-powered vehicles to be used in Milton Keynes could be similar in shape to a Smart car, and if anything, slightly smaller.

The infrastructure for the PRT pods at the airport was designed by civil engineers Arup, and the firm is also involved in the Milton Keynes trial.

The system was designed and operated by British firm Ultra Global PRT which is involved in a joint venture with Indian firm Fairwood that will next year see Amritsar in north India become the world’s first city to put a PRT system in place.

The Punjab Government hopes that the system will service 35 per cent of daily passenger traffic between Amritsar railway and bus stations and the city’s most famous tourist attraction, the Golden Temple.

Speaking at the launch of that project, Ultra Global PRT’s managing director Fraser Brown said that the system, which he described as “the future of environmental green travel,” would remove 2.2 million car trips in Amritsar each year.

He commented: “The pod PRT system is an idea whose time has well and truly come. Using British technology and knowhow, we’ve proved it works at Heathrow and now with Fairwood we’re creating bigger systems, on larger routes, with more stations and pods.

“Research has shown that by 2020, there could be between 50 to over 600 PRT system installations worldwide; a real achievement for a system that came out of research from Bristol University,” Mr Brown added.

Born in Scotland, Simon moved to London aged seven and now lives in the Oxfordshire Cotswolds with his miniature schnauzer, Elodie. He fell in love with cycling one Saturday morning in 1994 while living in Italy when Milan-San Remo went past his front door. A daily cycle commuter in London back before riding to work started to boom, he's been news editor at road.cc since 2009. Handily for work, he speaks French and Italian. He doesn't get to ride his Colnago as often as he'd like, and freely admits he's much more adept at cooking than fettling with bikes.