First public test in UK for self-driving pods

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The LUTZ Pathfinder pods shuttled people around the Milton Keynes train station and the city's business district(Credit: Transport Systems Catapult)

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Having been launched over 18 months ago and introduced to the public in September last year, the "Low-carbon Urban Transport Zone" (LUTZ) Pathfinder has now been demonstrated in pedestrian areas around the UK's Milton Keynes.

The LUTZ Pathfinder project is reported to have been the first UK trial of automated vehicles in public pedestrianized spaces. It was funded to the tune of £1.5 million (US$1.8 million) by the UK's Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and received additional investment from the Transport Systems Catapult (TSC), which ran the project, as well and investment in kind from the LUTZ Pathfinder Industry Group.

Unlike NuTonomy and Uber's self driving taxis, the electric-powered two-seater LUTZ Pathfinders are not cars and are not designed for use on road. Instead, they take the form of small pods conceived to transport people on last mile journeys, such as between train stations and city centers.

Like fully autonomous cars, the three pods developed for the project still employ cameras, LiDAR sensors and radar scanners. A University of Oxford-developed software package called Selenium is used to fuse the data from these sources and control the vehicle's navigation. The pods have fully autonomous capabilities, but are operated with a person at the wheel to take control if required. They have a top speed of 24 km/h (15 mph).

A number of exercises were carried out in preparation for the public demo, including mapping Milton Keynes in 3D, assessing public response to the vehicles, carrying out safety planning and a setting up a regulatory framework for the use of the vehicles.

The demonstration itself took place around the Milton Keynes train station and the city's business district. Although it marked the conclusion of the LUTZ Pathfinder project, the project's findings will inform the larger UK Autodrive project, which will see 40 autonomous pods and a number of autonomous cars trialed in Milton Keynes and Coventry.

"Oxford University's technology will go on to power automated vehicles around the world and the LUTZ Pathfinder project will now feed into a much wider program of autonomous trials across the UK," explains TSC director Neil Fulton. "Driverless vehicles are coming to Britain and what we have demonstrated … is a huge step on that journey."

The LUTZ Pathfinders demonstrations began yesterday and are running through to tomorrow.

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