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London's driverless pods are coming but how will the public react?

As Google is busy wrestling with the DMV on changing its rules regarding having a human driver behind the wheel, London is getting ready to start its trials with driverless pods this summer. The Greenwich Automated Transport Environment (GATEway) project will test seven driverless pods around the Greenwich area, close to the O2 Arena. The group behind the project are adapting electric passenger shuttles that are already being used at Heathrow airport.

This is exciting stuff but how will the British public take to autonomous cars? In a survey last year, a sample of the British public revealed a less optimistic view of autonomous cars, with 48% admitting they would not be willing to be a passenger in a driverless car.

I spoke with Nick Reed, technical director of the GATEway project and he told me that this is probably a lot to do with the way the survey questions are pitched.

“If you say, do you want a vehicle that is going to take control away from you, then you will think no I want to keep control. But if you say, do you want a vehicle that will enable you to relax through your journey then that sounds more appealing,” Reed says. “We need to give people the actual experience of travelling in these vehicles and then find out what they make of it instead of trying to predict it.”

The pods will travel up to 13 miles per hour and carry six passengers with a steward present to take over if there is a problem. Greenwich, in London, is one of the four places where driverless vehicles are going to be trialled.

Still, there will be lots of challenges to overcome.

“London has its complexity and level of busyness. We’re going to have to understand the assertiveness of the vehicle. Does it need to have a bell or a horn to encourage people to move out of the way? It is a research trial so if the weather will cause undue risk we will stop operating and save it for another day,” Reed tells me.

Stealing a bit of London’s thunder are the Dutch as they have already tested an electric, driverless shuttle bus called the WePod with six passengers in the Dutch town of Wageningen. It was only going at five miles per hour but this is just the start for the Dutch as the hope is to eventually use them as public transport.

Various automakers are taking different approaches in the autonomous vehicles space. Google is determined to go fully driverless without human intervention but has an upward battle ahead to get the DMV to change its rules. China’s Baidu has impressively tested its modified BMW 3-Series on complex routes in Beijing but is not going fully autonomous.

Which side should the UK fall on? Semi-autonomous or Google’s fully driverless approach?

Reed admits there isn’t a “simple answer” but thinks that with more complex routes, creating a fully automated vehicle that is capable of dealing with all that will be more challenging.

“In those areas, we are more likely to see an incremental approach where the vehicle will do some of the journey. That process has its own challenges and it’s very difficult to know how the driver will be prepared to take over if it happens suddenly – but this is another important area of research that we are interested in.”

 

Related reading:

Whether by pod or autobahn, driverless cars are coming

China’s Baidu’s autonomous driving is impressive in Beijing

Google’s ambitious fully driverless goal still needs work

Driverless cars: Is semi-autonomous the future?

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Ayesha Salim

Ayesha Salim is Staff Writer at IDG Connect

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