Public trials of driverless cars will begin in earnest this year, with projects in London and Milton Keynes aiming to help the UK become a leading player in autonomous vehicle development.
One of the projects will use new driverless pods, dubbed ‘Lutz Pathfinders’, to ferry pedestrians around a pre-defined urban route in Milton Keynes. While only three of the electrically powered pods will begin testing initially, the scheme will act as a precursor to a larger fleet of around 40 autonomous pods.
The two-seat vehicles, which are powered by an electric motor and offer a 40-mile range, have a top speed of 15mph. The pods are half the length of a Smart Fortwo and two-thirds the width.
Although primarily an autonomous vehicle, the Pathfinder can also be ‘driven’ by its occupants via a traditional steering wheel and controller.
The developers say the Pathfinder uses specialised sensor and navigation systems built by the University of Oxford’s Mobile Robotics Group to traverse urban routes alongside other pedestrians.
The Pathfinder was unveiled to the public in London by the Transport Systems Catapult, described as the UK’s centre for intelligent mobility. The Catapult forms part of the £20 million UK Autodrive project, which has backing from manufacturers Jaguar Land Rover and Ford.
The chief executive at the Transport Systems Catapult, Steve Yianni, said: "Technology such as driverless vehicles, intelligent phone apps and social media will transform how we travel in the future, making journeys safer, faster, and more connected.
"The UK is at the forefront of this emerging new technology and poised to become the leading supplier of autonomous vehicles and systems around the world.”
Another project features 'Meridian' autonomous shuttles, which will begin testing in Greenwich, and a driverless car produced by BAE Systems, based on the BAE Wildcat. Development of autonomous technology can now take significant steps forward following a six month review into how to bring driverless cars to UK roads.
Transport Minister Claire Perry said: "Driverless cars are the future. I want Britain to be at the forefront of this exciting new development, to embrace a technology that could transform our roads and open up a brand new route for global investment.
"These are still early days but today is an important step. The trials present a fantastic opportunity for this country to take a lead internationally in the development of this new technology."
Business Secretary Vince Cable has said the autonomous car industry is expected to be worth £900 billion by 2025.
The Department for Transport says the next step will be to decide upon guidelines and a code of practice for developing autonomous vehicles in real-life scenarios rather than in test environments, which is due to be published in the spring.
The department's review has already found that the UK's existing legal framework is "not a barrier" to developing driverless cars, "providing a test driver is present and takes responsibility for the safe operation of the vehicle."
A full review of current legislation, with the aim of incorporating driverless cars, will be completed by 2017. In particular, the review will focus on liabilities should accidents happen, amending existing regulations on vehicle use and promoting safety.
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