driverless pods on the road to roll-out in U.K

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The UK is opening up its roads to driverless cars, with the government announcing this week that it wants to take a “light touch, non-regulatory approach” to trials of autonomous vehicles. The decision comes after a six-month review of the country’s suitability for driverless tech, with the government confirming that current laws are no barrier to testing, and that £19 million ($29 million) in funding will be handed out to four pilot schemes across the country.

However, this doesn’t mean that UK residents can expect to see empty hatchbacks roaming the streets anytime soon. In terms of actual utility the projects scheduled for trials later this year are more like localized shuttles than actual cars: they’ll operate in limited numbers, mostly in pedestrianised areas, they won’t be available for public use, and they’ll always have a licensed driver behind the wheel.

A new driverless vehicle that should soon be available for the public to use has been unveiled in the UK. The Lutz Pathfinder is an autonomous pod that is designed to drive on pavements and in pedestrianized areas. Once successfully trialed, the pods will transport people around the city of Milton Keynes.

The Lutz Pathfinder is designed and built by engineering group RDM and is equipped with sensor and navigation technology provided by the University of Oxford’s Mobile Robotics Group. It is part of a project being run by the UK’s “innovation center for Intelligent Mobility” Transport Systems Catapult.

The project is aimed at catalyzing and promoting the use of new and emerging transport technologies, in this case autonomous vehicles. Transport Systems Catapult says it the first time driverless vehicles will have been used in an urban community setting.

Measuring 1,933 mm (76.1 in) long, 1,400 mm (55.1 in) wide and 1,682 mm (66.2 in) tall, the pods are designed to carry two adults and a maximum payload of 240 kg (529 lb). They are powered by a lithium-ion phosphate battery pack that provides a range of around 40 mi (64 km) or 8 hours and takes around 4 hours to fully recharge. The top speed is limited to 15 mph (24 km/h).

RDM tells Gizmag that a total of 22 sensors are used to help the vehicle navigate and to ensure the safety of pedestrians. The data generated from these sensors is pulled together by an internal computer to create a composite view of what is going on around the vehicle.

The technology used includes light detection and ranging (LIDAR) sensors for mapping the surrounding area and radar sensors for detecting the position of other vehicles. Video cameras are used for for pulling in real-time information about factors like pedestrians and traffic lights, whilst infra-red proximity sensors are used to stop the pods should they get too close to anything.

The pod itself has been designed to be very compact, with an upright seating position for the occupants. The wheels are tucked partially under the vehicle’s body and have covers to protect pedestrians from the moving parts. Virtually the entire side of the pod is a door, minimizing the the number of shutlines and providing easier access.

An initial trial using three pods will be carried out later this year, in an allocated area between Milton Keynes Central train station and the town center. Assuming the trial is successful, the pods will be rolled out for “last mile use” between the train station and other nearby locations. Users will be able to book a pod using a mobile app.

The video below is an animation of how the Lutz Pathfinder pods will look in action and there is also an introductory video about the project available to view.


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