diamond geezer

 Friday, September 15, 2017

If the future is driverless cars, then it's also driverless buses. It'll be some years before double deckers can glide around London without accidentally crashing, but some tentative first steps are being taken this month in the Olympic Park where you can take a ride on a bus that drives itself.

The catchily named Autonomous Shuttle Bus Trial is underway to test out what happens when you let loose an electric bus with passengers inside. The Olympic Park's an ideal location because it contains broad paved thoroughfares that aren't public roads, so there's no need for present and future vehicles to intermix. But with pedestrians and cyclists sharing the same paths there's still plenty of challenge to test sensors and software in a variety of wholly unpredictable situations, and you can come take a ride for free.

The shuttle bus circuit is in the northern half of the park, by the riverside lawns, with stops at the Velodrome, Timber Lodge cafe, Copper Box and Here East. The bus is only programmed to cross one of the two bridges so the route isn't a loop, more of a U-shape, and you could easily walk to your destination faster. What's more you're only allowed to get on at Timber Lodge, because that's where the security guards are, and they have to check your bag for food, drink and explosives before you board. I'm assuming this requirement is merely modern corporate paranoia for the safe running of the trial, rather than a necessary inconvenience of the transport of the future.

Boarding is through doors on the side of the vehicle, with a not insignificant step up from the road surface. The interior has four seats at each end, another three flip-up seats inbetween, and four grab handles dangling from the roof, making a total capacity of 15. I was intrigued to see that the seats came with seat belts, given that in the QEOP trial the maximum speed is capped at only 2mph. But the electric vehicle can actually reach 45mph, at which speed the 'Powerful Braking' warning notice might come into significant play.

The vehicle is programmed to follow a particular track... initially north past the playground towards the Velodrome. Within fifteen seconds of setting off it had proved intelligent enough to bypass a parked truck belonging to the park's gardening team which was obstructing half the road. Within half a minute it had proved intelligent enough not to drive into a pedestrian walking the other way, instead coming to an immediate stop, and pausing until the way ahead was clear. Just as impressively it didn't brake when a pedestrian passed close to the side of the vehicle, because they weren't a potential obstruction, so on we whirred.

You soon get used to being transported by a sentient machine. At 2mph you're never exactly in any danger, and even though there are no rails to follow you always sense the onboard navigation knows what it's doing. At faster speeds or out in proper traffic you'd likely not feel so safe, thanks to the unpredictabilities of other drivers, but such autonomous scenarios remain years off. The vehicle's manufacturers instead propose future use at airports, hospitals, university campuses and shopping centres - not so much replacing existing travel options as adding a new one.

Just like the DLR there may not be a driver at the front but there is a member of staff on board. Their job (in this trial) is to confirm at each stop when it's OK to close the doors and set off again, to reassure and inform, and to troubleshoot as necessary. And troubleshooting was indeed necessary on my journey when the software suddenly broke down. It might alternatively have been that someone didn't press the right bit of the right screen to move us forward, but whatever, we stopped with the doors open for over five minutes and another member of the trial team had to wander over and 'rescue' us.

More permanent obstructions require the operator to switch to manual operation, which I was surprised to see involves use of an Xbox controller whipped out from under a plastic panel. Other objects which you might consider to be an obstruction the autonomous vehicle happily drives straight over. It was a windy day in the park yesterday and the flags set up to mark bus stops had a tendency to blow over... but a bit of toppled fabric didn't upset the sensors at all. I wondered how tall something would have to be (briefcase-height? toddler-height?) for the automatic brakes to kick in.

This shuttle bus trial is up and running until the end of the month (September 16th, 23rd and 26th excepted), and no pre-booking is required. You might be asked to fill in a survey about your 12 minute trip, but otherwise it's free, and more of an experience than any useful service. But one day, if all works out, who knows? A shuttle to the other side of the hospital? An app-hailed taxi that turns up to carry you the last mile home from the station? The electric future of independent on-road travel? This short pootle around the Olympic Park might be the precursor to changing the way we all get around... or merely a sidelined novelty.

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