Hail, tomorrow’s driverless taxis

The world’s first driverless taxis could be operating in Cardiff by the end of the year.

A demonstration of the computer-controlled cabs, which are designed to follow a simple metal guide-strip on the road surface, will be held at the Cardiff Docks next week.

Ultra, as the automatic public transport system is called, is the brainchild of Martin Lowson, professor of advanced transportation at the University of Bristol.

‘The first track will run from Cardiff Central station to Cardiff Bay and we are looking into routing in more detail,’ he said.

Test track

The completion of the £2.7m test track marks the conclusion of the first phase of a project intended to bring a new type of public transport to Wales. The scheme has been funded by the National Endowment for Science and the Arts and the Department of Transport.

Each taxi is designed to carry four people and travel at 25mph. Passengers request a vehicle at a designated stop, where they buy a ticket for their destination. That ticket is then used to program the automatic cab.

Lowson said the system should also lend itself to travel within ‘closed environments’ such as airports, recreation centres, industrial parks or shopping centres.

So far however, he has been working with Praxis, specialists in embedded safety critical systems, and Cardiff City Council to design a system that will operate in the city.

The advantage of Ultra is that it will be relatively easy and cheap to install compared to a conventional tram or monorail network.

To find their way, sensors in each cab will follow the metal guide-strip, which is fixed to the road surface. Each cab will also carry its own internal battery power system and an internal navigation system. This avoids the necessity of expensively installing rails or a continuous power supply along the taxi route.

Otherwise, the new transport system will make use of a large number of existing technologies including traditional civil engineering infrastructures for the guide track and station stops, safety software and communications systems.

Lowson also said that the electrically-propelled cabs consume three times less energy than buses, trams and trains.

Confident

A spokesman for Cardiff City Council said that the project had the full backing of the Welsh Assembly and the government. He said the council was confident it would go ahead, but could not confirm how much it would cost to build or what the ticket prices are likely to be.

Lowson hopes that the test track trials and the subsequent Cardiff city project will be the start of the new system becoming popular world-wide.

The cabs and other hardware will be manufactured by Lowson’s company, Advanced Transport Systems.