With experts predicting the age of autonomous cars to be just a decade away, the UK has officially launched its multi-agency, government-backed study into autonomous vehicles with the launch of several different self-driving trials across the UK,.
Covering everything from full-size, highway-capable cars through to small urban electric vehicles for low-speed pedestrian areas, the government funded-projects will run for between 18 and 36 months. Project participants and partner agencies range from academic institutions to entire city councils, insurance providers and automakers Jaguar Land Rover and Ford.
With total investment of an impressive £20 million, all of the projects are being overseen by the Transport Systems Catapult, a government agency tasked with being the UK’s innovation hub for advanced, intelligent transport.
Among the projects launching today is one based in Milton Keynes focusing on providing autonomous low-speed transportation in pedestrian zones. Using a fleet of driverless pods called “Lutz Pathfinders,” visitors to the tech-friendly city will be able to ride from Milton Keynes’ Central Railway Station into the city centre without a human behind the wheel.
For now, three of the Lutz Pathfinders — which are tiny two-seat electric vehicles about half the length of a Smart ForTwo minicar and two-thirds the width — will hit the roads of Milton Keynes ahead of a larger fleet of 40 vehicles later this year.
Designed for use in city landscapes however, the Pathfinders aren’t exactly fast: with a top speed of 15 mph and just 40 miles of all-electric range, they’re not going to always be the quickest choice over a conventional human-driven taxi cab or perhaps even Milton Keynes’ wirelessly-charging electric busses.
Also launching today is a similar low-speed pilot project project taking place in Greenwich, London, where low-speed autonomous electric shuttles will be used to give tourists a local tour without the need for anyone at the wheel.
Operated by a consortium of providers including Innovate UK and Transport for London, the GATEway project seeks to expand both the technical and sociological impact of autonomous vehicles in the real world.
Unlike the Pathfinder vehicles — which seat just two people — the driverless passenger shuttle by Meridian resembles a carriage more than a car, with a single elongated bench seat running along three side of its interior. With no windows and just a roof to protect it from the elements, it will undoubtedly be more popular in summer months than in the bitter cold of February.
At the same time, researchers will invite members of the public to take part in a 3D simulated virtual reality, where they will be placed inside a virtual driverless car. This will enable researchers to investigate some of the sociological implications of being driven by a robot in a safe, controlled environment.
A similar project is also taking place in Bristol, where the Venturer consortium will investigate whether driverless car scan reduce congestion and make roads safer. It will also examine the legal and sociological implications of autonomous vehicles.
Alongside these low-speed and mainly research projects, Jaguar Land Rover and Ford will also be taking to the roads in full-size, highway-capable cars in Milton Keynes and Coventry, putting their latest autonomous driving hardware and designs through their paces on real roads.
Bristol too will also get its own full-size autonomous vehicle: a specially-modified autonomous drive military-spec Land Rover based on the high-performance Bowler LandRover Defender and built by BAE Systems.
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