Davide Brizzolara and Andrea Toth consider the impact that self-driving vehicles could have on cities and passenger transport


gateway_podA demonstration by Southern passengers


A growing urban population is creating unprecedented challenges in Europe’s cities: pollution, congestion, housing, loss of space and rising energy consumption among the many. One of the most apparent side-effects of a more urbanised Europe we experience every day is the worsening traffic conditions.

London, Stuttgart, Cologne and Brussels are among the top most congested cities worldwide according to traffic data company INRIX’s latest findings, but countries like France, Switzerland, Luxembourg and the Netherlands all rank in the top 10 for average time commuters spent in traffic last year.

At the same time, people are becoming more knowledgeable and more demanding. We want services, we want them now and we want them personalised. We expect information at our fingertips at all times, we want our pizza delivered at 2am, and an Uber to arrive within three minutes. Cities are finding it almost impossible to live up to such service standards that industry has set and consumers expect. Add on the population increase and the budgetary constraints and it soon becomes very clear: cities need to get their act together and they need to do it fast. The gradual growth from nuisance to critical issue has now accelerated to a level where the catchphrase ‘liveable city’ is heard more often than not.

Mobility is one of the areas most affected by the trends. Getting from one end of town to the other, getting there efficiently, quickly, safely and as environmentally friendly as possible is an intertwined issue impacting millions of commuters daily. It’s amazingly complex: the needs of citizens, the private and public sector, the environment, infrastructure, housing and the constant race against time requires a meaningful dialogue among stakeholders.


Solving the last mile problem

Cities do listen, not solely because of the well-being of citizens but because of the significant cost due to the hours lost by millions of commuters stuck on congested roads every day. Whether it is 20 minutes or two hours, idle time spent in jams is loss of productive time for the entire economy. So, let’s create a smart public transport system, limit the use of private cars, make our cities greener and rethink the basis of town-planning.

Public transport has some clear advantages: it can be quicker, cheaper, hassle-free and of course it serves as a greener alternative. But there is one final argument which makes cars more appealing: covering the last mile.

This means that final destinations (your home, your office, or the venue of your piano lessons) are often not located close enough to transport stops. When it comes to comfort and convenience, cars will win the game until we find an easy, smooth and safe way of getting passengers through this very last mile.

Bikes, segways, go-karts and such offer an alternative but are obviously not a universal solution. Automation can provide a feasible, safe alternative to combat the growing congestion though not in the way you might think. Self-driving vehicles may not be mass market ready but they are definitely able to act as a bridge on that very last mile. Not necessarily the hyped self-driving sedans we see in futuristic ads, but automation is definitely happening and seeping into our lives.


Make way for the pods

Say hello to driverless pods. Small electric vehicles that, depending on their size, are able to carry up to 30 people, helping passengers get around on a limited route. For now they’re mostly used on fixed lines between two end points (such as campuses or airports) but soon enough they could become an on-demand option for commuters moving around a city. It’s not a brand new concept: Schiphol airport has been using a parking pod shuttle since the mid-90s, UAE’s Masdar city, Singapore and other ultra-developed futuristic sites have already been testing for years and are planning to deploy them widely.

European adoption poses some unique challenges: its roads were not built for pods; actually most of them were not built for cars either. Which means that testing and deploying pods is much more complex in Europe than in newer cities or airport sites, but not a challenge that cannot be overcome. This is proven by the abundance of national and Europe-wide activities and projects for pods across the continent.

Perhaps one of the most extensive
cross-border pilot projects on this topic is CityMobil and its continuation, CityMobil2, showcasing automated road transport systems (ARTS) in a number of cities across Europe. Several automated vehicles were roaming the streets of six cities including San Sebastian (Spain), Sophia Antipolis (France) and Trikala (Greece) demonstrating and testing the impact of automated shuttles. The demonstration in Trikala proved that the shuttles are ready to be used in shared traffic, given that the rules of the road undergo slight modifications to enable a greater level of safety. Beyond a pilot deployment, the project also worked on addressing different barriers to wide implementation such as the legal framework, technical specifications and an assessment of wider economic impact.

The Netherlands is famous for leading the automation revolution, whether it is with the European Truck Platooning Challenge or by placing driverless public transport on roads. This year has marked a first for both, in January WePod’s driverless shuttle launched a six-month, real-life trial on a 200-metre stretch on public roads with six passengers. It’s too early to place them in tough conditions (such as bad weather or during rush hour), but the shuttle is already taking passengers between the towns of Wageningen and Ede making it the first autonomous vehicle on Dutch roads. The shuttle operates between the train station and the university proving a solution to the last mile problem.

Crossing the Channel to the United Kingdom, we see a number of national projects working on deploying driverless pods. The LUTZ Pathfinder (standing for Low-carbon Urban Transport Zone), a two-seater autonomous electric pod, was the first, presented to the public in the autumn of 2015.The project is coordinated by Transport Systems Catapult, the UK’s innovation centre for Intelligent Mobility. GATEway, another UK-based project (Greenwich Automated Transport Environment), led by TRL is deploying pods across Greenwich. They are testing a variety of different use cases such as driverless shuttles or automated urban deliveries.


What we have learned… so far

The results of these diverse and yet in many ways similar projects will lead to a better understanding of many aspects of technical, legal and social challenges that need to be overcome before autonomous vehicles can roam the streets.

One of the main outcomes of these activities contributed to understanding changes that need to be made on a regulatory level. Member states and cities have found that the benefits of these solutions are worthy of investment and updated their regulation to allow for testing. One of the projects also created a clear step by step guide for companies and cities alike that can help facilitate testing and deployment. They also pave the way for future activities by identifying questions that need to be tackled: how can the vehicles reach higher speeds; how do they deal with real-traffic scenarios; what are the socio-economic impacts; what are the fare payment options?

What these projects do apart from their primary objectives is observe user behaviour. How do people interact with an automated vehicle, what do they feel about it, how much do they trust it, how much might they be willing to pay for it? The technology could be there, legislation is on the way, but at a final stage it will be users who decide if they are willing to travel in an automated vehicle.

Combining all the knowledge, best practice findings and studies, and collaborating with the many different stakeholders requires effort, time and resources. VRA (Vehicle and Road Automation) Networking, an EU-funded support action, set out to do exactly that: to serve as a common point for all stakeholders involved in the deployment of automation on European roads and to feed discussions exploring topics such as regulation, connectivity, human factors and digital infrastructure fostering harmonisation with the US, Japan and elsewhere.

There is a long list of challenges waiting to be solved before tackling the ultimate decider: us, the passengers and users of the roads. It takes time of course, and none of these happen overnight. But getting more accustomed to seeing driverless vehicles, and using them in one of the last mile solutions could slowly but surely pave the way for mass adoption.

About the authors: Davide Brizzolara is Support Manager and Andrea Toth is Communications Officer at ERTICO – ITS Europe. VRA (Vehicle and Road Automation) Networking is an EC-funded support action (grant no. 610737).
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This article appears inside the latest issue of Passenger Transport.

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