diamond geezer

 Friday, September 06, 2019

I was walking through the Olympic Park yesterday, listening to some sci-fi through my headphones, when a man unexpectedly invited me to step inside a driverless pod. Obviously I accepted.

This is stage 2 of a government-sponsored project operated by Capri Mobility, a consortium which includes teams from AECOM and Loughborough University. Stage 1 involved trundling around an airfield in Gloucestershire and stage 4 will involve on-road public trials, but stage 4's not until next year so best not get ahead of ourselves.

We've had driverless pods in QEOP before, two years ago, so this wouldn't be my first experience of autonomous travel. I already knew we wouldn't be travelling very fast, so I wasn't taking my life in my hands, and that we'd only be going round a short loop in the northern half of the park. This time the vehicle was considerably smaller, with fewer but comfier seats, confusingly manufactured by a company called Westfield. It looked like I was going to be the only passenger too.

I wasn't alone in the pod, however. A young operator with a laptop plugged into a car battery sat opposite, intently watching his screen (and counting down aloud to provide an audio record just before we set off). At least a dozen other Capri collaborators were milling around elsewhere; safety stewards in orange vests, safety marshals in yellow vests, researchers in green vests and information marshals in pink vests. For a trial the public were generally ignoring, it was extremely well staffed.

I was told I could stay aboard until any other passengers wanted to have a go, and off we went up Middlesex Way. The pod beeped, loudly, all the time it was in motion as a cue to other path users to keep out of our way. If this is the future of autonomous travel, it is going to drive you nuts. The beeping also made it harder to hear the commentary that somebody had kindly recorded. Other things which made it hard to follow the commentary included the tininess of the front and rear windows, and the fact I was facing backwards so couldn't see any of the landscape features it was describing.

The pod successfully negotiated a dip in the path and an oncoming bike, gently altering direction as required. It moved forward no faster than 5mph, generally rather less, mulling over its immediate environment as it proceeded. It wasn't spooked when one of the marshals nipped in front of it on an e-scooter to check how it would react. I was told that the pod is programmed to halt if anything moves within 4m up front or within 2m along the side. It turned the next corner without veering too early or too late, then pulled up at the next stop... where it turned out nobody else wanted to get in so I got to stay aboard for the next leg.

The next leg was across Knights Bridge, as the span leading to the velodrome is now called. Initially all was smooth running, but then an entirely unplanned challenge came striding towards us. A group of 20 or so young people were heading our way, spanning the entire width of the path, and scheduled to rendezvous just after we passed a centrally-located CCTV pole. The pod's systems coped brilliantly, spotting which side of the pole was slightly emptier, keeping going when the crowd continued to stream by, and halting only when a couple of people came up to the window to peer inside. I didn't wave.

I got to ride three legs in total, all the way round to the Timber Lodge cafe, safely negotiating several more pedestrians, marshals and a skateboarder. But then the skateboarder wanted a ride, so I relinquished my seat and 'paid' for my ride via the approved method - the filling in of a questionnaire.

The questionnaire was quite lengthy, and wanted to know my opinions on all sorts of subjects I hadn't been thinking about. Would I have been happy sharing a pod ride with a stranger? Was I concerned about the pod being cyber-hijacked? Would I consider taking a pod a) at an airport? b) round a hospital c) to go shopping? d) instead of an Uber? How much would I be willing to pay? Some of the questions were very poorly phrased, so I fear I gave unhelpfully pedantic answers. But I was reminded that the ethics of driverless public transport are complex knots yet to be untied.

Capri Mobility's two-year four-part trial will be investigating such factors as Vehicle to Infrastructure Communications, Data Privacy Compliance, Fleet Management Systems, Insurance, Cloud Security and Cyber-Physical Security. They've also introduced me to the word 'Accidentology', which is "the collection, interrogation and analysis of complex real world collisions and near misses, involving all types of road users, to understand how accidents might occur when autonomous driving systems are introduced to real world situations." I think I'm glad I didn't read about that one before I climbed in.

Only later did I realise I hadn't actually done what the trial anticipated. Stage 2 is supposed to be about simulating an on-demand service, with visitors "booking a ride using an app through information marshals located at different stops along the pods’ route". Nothing like that happened. Apparently I was supposed to specify my destination and supply a memorable name so that I could be given a booking reference, then await the arrival of the nearest pod, whereas in fact I was simply ushered into an empty vehicle. My hunch is that the trial has been impractically scoped, with over-optimistic expectations, which doesn't bode well for reaching its ultimate goals.

The current trial period lasts two weeks, kicking off this Monday and ending next Friday. Weekends are not included. It's not that exciting. Don't drop everything and rush over. But do watch out for stage 4, sometime next year, when the team return to Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park and send the pods out on the roads. At current rate of travel, it may be the furthest your driverless vehicle experience ever gets.

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