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Hailing the driverless taxi

Earlier this summer London black cab drivers brought sections of the capital to a standstill as they protested against the Uber service; an app that lets users hail a cab and agree a fare at the touch of a smartphone button.

Their objections centre on claims that the app enables drivers who haven’t gone through the rigours of “the knowledge” and the cost of acquiring a black cab license to operate what is effectively a metering system – which only licensed cab drivers are allowed to use.

Whilst the attractions of the technology are obvious, it’s easy to see why cab drivers are so upset. However, according to a report out this week, there could be worse to come, as the mobile route-planning technology that underpins systems like Uber helps to usher in unmanned urban transport technology that might one day take the human completely out of the loop.

Produced by transport guru Professor David Begg the wide-ranging report, entitled “A 2050 vision for London” considers the impact that the rise of autonomous transport systems might have on UK cities, and in particular London.


Pod cars have been operating at Heathrow airport since 2012

Begg’s report considers the potential impact and credibility of a range of autonomous transport systems: from rail – which is already embracing increasing levels of autonomy – to the much-vaunted driverless car.

current levels of city car use are going to be unsustainable

On the latter, he concludes that despite its potential to make the roads safer and improve traffic flows, it could be decades before the technology for fully autonomous driving is widely available. Even then, given the huge technical challenges operating in complex unpredictable urban environments, the driverless family car is likely to have more of an impact on life outside our cities.

The report also suggests that with the population of London set to increase to around 12 million by 2050, current levels of city car use are going to be unsustainable, and the goal should really be to reduce car ownership by making forms of public transport more attractive and flexible.

Which is where the pod car comes in: a futuristic urban transport system that many believe could ultimately marry the comfort and flexibility of the personal vehicle with the availability of practicality of public transport.

The concept has been discussed for decades, and to be fair still tends to be viewed as a curiosity championed by an enthusiastic fringe, but things may be beginning to change: a network of pods running on guide-ways has been ferrying passengers from Heathrow airport’s carpark to Terminal 5 for the past 2 years, whilst, as previously reported in The Engineer, the UK town of Milton Keynes will soon host one of the biggest urban trials of the technology.


A trial of driverless pods is planned for the UK town of Milton Keynes

And whilst so far the applications of Pod vehicles have been limited many believe that the emergence of the smart phone coupled with the rise of autonomous technology, and the advent of powerful route planning algorithms, could help the concept evolve into a truly compelling offering. Indeed, Begg’s report claims that technology could be at the heart of an on demand service which combines the cost benefits of route-sharing with the flexibility of taxi-travel.

Clearly, cabbies probably don’t need to start considering an alternative career yet, and there are a host of technical challenges to overcome before the technology moves beyond what are currently tightly controlled small scale installations, but it’s inevitable that mobile systems and autonomy will reshape the way we get from A to B and this latest report offers an intriguing glimpse of what that world might look like.

Readers' comments (7)

  • Use the billions earmarked for HS2 to move to a 21st century solution for people and goods transportation: the autonomous driverless vehicle.

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  • Totally agree with K Jones.

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  • Further to K Jones - Even better it would be a system for everyone rather that the elite few who could afford to use HS2. One that would have real social and environmental benefits - unlike a certain white elephant!

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  • Visionary concepts should be welcomed not jeered at, as this is the path of progress for the future.

    Well said Professor David Begg! Email me

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  • Autonomous Vehicles Transportation System

    1. On existing rail systems, rip out all the metal rails and associated infrastructure.
    2. Use the land so freed to create routs for autonomous vehicles, including tunnels, viaducts and stations.
    3. Reinstate the pre Beeching routes for the same autonomous vehicles.
    4. Add this network to the existing road system and reduce bottle necks.

    Ergo; better, quicker, cheaper, for everyone and it maintains a vehicle manufacturing industry.

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  • Automated pods, designed for lower speed last mile solutions, could actually play very effectively to rail's particular strengths, increasing the effective catchment areas for more widely spaced train stops, so the rail-borne mode can concentrate on its ideal niche of longer distance services at relatively high speed. Local urban bus services might have a harder time competing with the pods just as existing taxi and private hire cars may.

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  • I agree with Mr Townend.

    Mr Jones- Automated vehicles should be used to provide transfer to and from the station offering 'door to door' journeys not replace the railways. After all for well used corridors of travel- rail is much more energy efficient and faster than car travel- a factor critical in an energy scarce future. I would even go so far as to suggest replacing all long distance car journeys in this fashion and HS2 would be a key part of meeting the required capacity.
    Driverless cars will give us a chance to reform the way we move about, let's not scupper it with a reincarnation of the flawed way we have done it for the last 50 years.

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