Home
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.

25 comments

Avatar
northstar [1108 posts] 2 years ago
0 likes

Comical, what's wrong with the road if they must... do they want to take over every public space?

Avatar
Mart [110 posts] 2 years ago
0 likes

A step closer to safer roads for every one. But are the paths the best place for them? If this city trial is to work the council needs to be adapting the road network where these will be used and not be to shy in splashing the cash and removing red tape to trial this properly.

Avatar
mrmo [2069 posts] 2 years ago
0 likes

so bikes on pavement bad, but 12mph cars are ok?

And for what sort of journey are these envisioned? wouldn't walking or cycling cover most uses?

Avatar
karlowen [65 posts] 2 years ago
0 likes

Ridiculous. £1 million quid so that people don't have to walk approximately 1 mile.

Avatar
crazy-legs [735 posts] 2 years ago
0 likes
karlowen wrote:

Ridiculous. £1 million quid so that people don't have to walk approximately 1 mile.

But what if that person is disabled or needs to carry heavy luggage or has a small child in tow? In those circumstances, they make perfect sense - smaller, less dangerous/damaging than a car, but with bigger capacity than a bicycle and can be used by anyone.

Able to go more directly (and closer to buildings) than a taxi, no worries about ownership or taxes or parking. Can see the attraction of it to certain markets, especially railway stations and airports.

As with most things, there's no one solution to congestion and traffic pollution - this could be part of a wider scheme in conjunction with Park & Ride, a cycle hire scheme, trams etc etc.

Avatar
CotterPin [63 posts] 2 years ago
0 likes

In private spaces like an airport I can see their use, but in public spaces, it sounds like a solution for a problem that doesn't exist - or as already been solved with a very simple bit of technology; the bicycle

Avatar
RobD [287 posts] 2 years ago
0 likes

My parents live not far from MK so I'll be looking forward to finding an excuse to go and try these out when I visit. Seems like a good idea for certain types of journeys. Seems like a pretty ideal place to try it out, the layout of the town must be helpful.
It'll be interesting to see if this leads to on road trials, could make town centre commuting that bit safer if there's less cars darting about.
Does anyone know if they're going to be using wireless charging under the pavement? Seems like this would be an ideal time to implement this too.

Avatar
cat1commuter [1421 posts] 2 years ago
0 likes

So what bit of legislation allows them to be driven on pavements? Whatever allows invalid mobility carriages?

Avatar
jarredscycling [456 posts] 2 years ago
0 likes

You think road usage would make much more sense that path usage. Driverless cars are being licensed in the US and that will clearly be the future not driverless "pods" on path

Avatar
JonD [397 posts] 2 years ago
0 likes
Avatar
Simon_MacMichael [2449 posts] 2 years ago
0 likes

It's certainly a strange concept now, one maybe that jars in a society conditioned by half a century or more of mass car dependency (and look where that's got us).

But I couldn't help thinking while writing this that we'll look back in a century's time (well, our descendants will, anyway) at the late 20th and early 21st centuries in wonder at how a mass mode of transport was allowed to develop in which human error - or impatience, or negligence - led to the death or maiming of millions.

In non-road.cc work, I often have cause to reflect on where things are going to go in future, and I've never been as certain that I've seen how it will be than with this.

Of course, once the bloody things become self-aware, we're in trouble...  3

Avatar
angus h [11 posts] 2 years ago
0 likes

Small children are either small enough to carry / push in a buggy, or should be able & expected to walk a mile (well, I certainly expect mine to...). People with serious mobility disabilities typically already own their own solution to the problem.

Yes, they're less dangerous/damaging than a car, but the wretched things are going to be on the pavement. You know, so as not to have to mix with all those dangerous, damaging cars.

Avatar
puppet-head [9 posts] 2 years ago
0 likes

I think by pavement they include redways, these must have a bylaw somewhere which the council can fiddle with.

No idea where you might want to go though.

Avatar
Initialised [297 posts] 2 years ago
0 likes

Johnny Cab!

These should be replacing buses, taxis and trams and using roadspace currently allocated to cars not the pavement.

Avatar
gazza_d [459 posts] 2 years ago
0 likes

"the vehicles could transform Britain’s city centres, which could become further pedestrianised"

Utter tosh. Cars, even small electric self driving cars are still bloody cars.

This money would be much better spent improving the cycle network and a load of hire bikes.

FFS.

Avatar
horizontal dropout [266 posts] 2 years ago
0 likes

Vince Cable: "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."

This remark shows where the governments heart really is compared to hogwash and bullsh*t about more cycling. This scheme embodies why cycling doesn't get any money. Turnover from this will be far greater than from an equivalent increase in cycling numbers. Society's costs (health, road maintenance etc.) are reduced by cycling but that reduction in costs is not as attractive to business, and therefore the government, as the profit from a scheme such as this.

Basically it's yet again refusing to look at working solutions to people transport and people friendly city spaces which already exist in the Netherlands, Copenhagen and other places.

Avatar
Some Fella [890 posts] 2 years ago
0 likes

No one walks in Milton Keynes anyway so there is no danger of running over any pedestrians.

Avatar
PhilRuss [372 posts] 2 years ago
0 likes

[[[[ Er...what about visually impaired and blind people....must they stay home, and put away the white stick?
P.R.

Avatar
ajd [26 posts] 2 years ago
0 likes

This is so ludicrous it is beyond satire.

The answer? One word - Brompton
How is this silly car IN ANY WAY BETTER?

P.s. granted for disabled people it would be great, but is this the most cost effective solution for them?

Avatar
Brooess [85 posts] 2 years ago
0 likes

What's not being said directly is that these are a proof of concept for replacing human-driven vehicles 100% with self-driving autonomous cars.

Quote:

Vince Cable: "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."

means by developing this proof of concept in the UK, and because small UK automotive firms are some of the best in the world... then as self-driving cars become reality, we'll be very well placed to profit from all the engineering, design, legal etc etc work which will need to be done.
Think how many cars there are in the world now and think how massive the market is to replace them...
Oh and it will deal with the anti-cyclist hostility in one fell swoop.

Avatar
a.jumper [846 posts] 2 years ago
0 likes
puppet-head wrote:

I think by pavement they include redways, these must have a bylaw somewhere which the council can fiddle with.

They'll have to pull out a lot of the silly yellow bollards then!

And yes, Johnny Cab! Please let it be voiced by that same actor off of Star trek!

Avatar
ragtag [207 posts] 2 years ago
0 likes

Essentially the commercialisation of our streets. Someone can make money out of this - there is no money to be made in building cycling infrastructure. Once it is built it needs to be maintained.

The societal benefits of cycling are ignored because of the pressure from industry and business. UK measures success in share price and not happy people (unless they are bankers).

Avatar
Chuck [534 posts] 2 years ago
0 likes
gazza_d wrote:

"the vehicles could transform Britain’s city centres, which could become further pedestrianised"

Utter tosh. Cars, even small electric self driving cars are still bloody cars.

This money would be much better spent improving the cycle network and a load of hire bikes.

FFS.

Depends how far you widen the scope doesn't it?
Yes, they're still cars, but maybe it makes more sense if you start to think beyond the model of privately owned cars and how much space those cars demand. It's a lot for loads of big cars to transport one person somewhere and then sit around doing nothing for a few hours. If you replace all that with a fleet of small poddy type things like this then I think that would help to start to reclaim cities from private cars. You'd maybe need far less of them servicing lots of small trips very frequently than you have now where everybody wants their own.

Obviously that sort of thing would be a massive cultural shift or challenge as well as an engineering one though. But it's definitely worth looking at IMO, which is what they're doing here it sounds like.

Avatar
Chuck [534 posts] 2 years ago
0 likes
Simon_MacMichael wrote:

we'll look back in a century's time (well, our descendants will, anyway) at the late 20th and early 21st centuries in wonder at how a mass mode of transport was allowed to develop in which human error - or impatience, or negligence - led to the death or maiming of millions.

I think you're bang on here Simon.

Avatar
noizebox [22 posts] 2 years ago
0 likes

It will be very interesting to see how they will propose coping with junctions.