Autonomous pods hit public streets


Today bodyshop Magazine was offered the opportunity to experience what could be the future of last-mile travel with a ride through Milton Keynes in an autonomous pod.

Starting out at Milton Keynes railways station, the driverless pod followed a previously mapped-out circular route along pedestrian walkways – automatically breaking when its sensors detected an object in its path.

This first-time public demonstration is the culmination of an 18-month Transport Systems Catapult (TSC) project called LUTZ Pathfinder.

Simon White, PR and communications manager, TSC, said, ‘We were tasked with designing a system that we could prove can work in public and interact with people and deal with obstacles. We’ve done behind-closed-doors testing but this is the first time we’ve demonstrated it in public.

‘Once this is done we move into a bigger, government-funded project called UK Auto Drive. That will be based in Milton Keynes and involve road trials with people like Jaguar Land Rover. They’ll take this system and systems like it and try and operate 40 pods as a fleet. They will see if they can feasibly make this into a viable public transport system, what regulations that will require, and what type of vehicles should it be. That will be the next step.’

The pod has been designed and delivered by the University of Oxford’s Mobile Robotics Group and its commercial spin-off, Oxbotica.

Paul Newman, professor of information and engineering at University of Oxford and founder of Oxbotica, said, ‘In the boot the pod has a computer fed by sensors – cameras at the front and lasers at the side. That feeds in data at 20 frames a second and answers three key questions: Where am I? What’s around me? What should I do?

‘They are the three pillars of autonomy. The software system we’ve built to do that is call selenium. It receives the information and asks, ‘in the next 20th of a second, what should I do?’ It then repeats the whole thing again and again, 20 times a second.’

Although still in its infancy, the technology is growing up extremely fast with projected dates of delivery constantly being revised downwards as the automotive industry together with leading tech companies compete in what is this industry’s equivalent of the space race.

Uber is already trialling autonomous cars on public roads in America and giant car manufacturers such as BMW, Ford, Tesla, Toyota, Volkswagen and Volvo – among others – all expect to release autonomous models by around 2020.

TSC says it envisages fleets of driverless pods offering last-mile transport in UK cities to arrive at about the same time.

Simon concluded, ‘We’re only demonstrating the system here. The most difficult part is the brain of the car but once you’ve got that working you can take that software and put it in any vehicle with any configuration, be it buses, eight-seater versions of this or whatever.

‘This is just a test platform and we reckon it will be 2020-2025 before you start seeing this as a commonplace public service, probably being used in a similar way to Uber – ordered over an app and paid for per mile.’