LUTZ Pathfinder is a pioneering research and development project that is carrying out the UK’s first trials in public pedestrianised areas of fully-automated (self-driving) vehicles. Overseen by the Transport Systems Catapult, the project is using electric-powered two-seater “pods” that operate on designated pedestrianised areas of Milton Keynes. The pods are designed and manufactured by Coventry-based automotive innovation firm RDM, and equipped with autonomous control systems developed by the University of Oxford’s world-leading Mobile Robotics Group.
There are three pods being trialled in the initial project. The findings from the research carried out using the three LUTZ Pathfinder pods will also be fed into the larger-scale UK Autodrive project that is set to trial a fleet of 40 pods (as well as regular road-based vehicles) operating in Milton Keynes and Coventry.
The three pods being used for the LUTZ Pathfinder trial have full automated capability, but for the duration of the trials, they will still have steering wheels and pedals, as well as a trained operator in each pod who will be ready to take control of the vehicles if necessary. The LUTZ Pathfinder trials are due to be completed in 2016, by which time the larger-scale UK Autodrive programme will be working towards the creation of a fleet of 40 fully autonomous pods that will be able to operate without test drivers.
The long-term benefits of automated transport systems are expected to be significant. Increased safety is one of the main factors, since human error is estimated to be a contributing factor in at least 90% of today’s road accidents.
Fully automated systems are also predicted to radically reduce the number of cars on the roads and produce cars that drive much more efficiently, leading to benefits for the environment as well as freeing up space currently used for parking. Once cars are able to drive without any human intervention at all, there will also be significant time savings as people are freed up from their hours currently spent at the wheel.
Truly driverless vehicles would also be accessible by people who cannot currently drive, for example due to age or disability. Driverless vehicle technology is also viewed as a fast-growing and potentially highly lucrative new transport sector, making it essential for the UK to invest in this area if it wishes to remain among the leading nations.
The arrival of fully automated vehicles is expected to have a disruptive effect on several industries and professions – including car manufacturers, professional drivers and the insurance sector – but the scale of the impact will depend greatly on the extent and speed at which driverless vehicle technology is rolled out.
Recent studies have also pointed out that the move towards fully automated vehicles is likely to create many additional jobs in several sectors either directly or indirectly related to this new technology.
The LUTZ Pathfinder pods are designed to operate in pedestrianised areas as part of the longer term intention to offer an on-demand public transport system which can take people wherever they wish to go. While the LUTZ Pathfinder trials will be conducted in a relatively small part of the city centre, the pods could eventually be rolled out to provide a city-wide service for the people of Milton Keynes – potentially using both roads and pedestrianised areas in order to offer true door-to-door transport.
The larger-scale UK Autodrive project will be used to trial autonomous systems on “regular” road-based cars, as well as expanding the number of pavement-based pods to a fleet of 40.
The LUTZ Pathfinder trials are being overseen by the Transport Systems Catapult which was established in 2013 as the UK’s technology and innovation centre for Intelligent Mobility.
Coventry-based firm RDM Group are responsible for designing and manufacturing the pods, while Oxford University’s Mobile Robotics Group are supplying the pods’ autonomous control systems. Milton Keynes Council are providing the pedestrianised areas that are serving as the project’s “urban laboratory”.
The LUTZ Pathfinder project is primarily focussed on the technical feasibility of using autonomous pods, and the three vehicles involved in the trials are therefore not available for public use. How pods could be used as a public transport system will be explored by the larger UK Autodrive project which will oversee the trial of 40 pods (as well as “regular” road-based cars).
By the end of the UK Autodrive project it is intended that these pods will be used by the public to move around areas of Milton Keynes as part of a pilot public transport service. It is intended that the pod public transport system will continue to operate on the streets of Milton Keynes once the UK Autodrive project has finished. Who operates the system and how it is operated will be determined during the latter stages of the UK Autodrive project.