The auto-pod catapults out of the shadows – in plan to show UK ‘demonstrably smarter’ than anyone else

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Impression of auto-pods in Milton Keynes centre.

Impression of auto-pods in Milton Keynes centre.

News of one of the UK’s leading telematics vehicle projects – the LUTZ autonomous two-person transport pod – has made a brief media appearance.

And, although a project modest in size the promoters are not shy of claiming they have world-changing ambitions.

In fact this pod, now only in the development stage, is one of the most visible features of a long-term programme which (in the ambitious words of the project organisers) aims to do something ‘demonstrably smarter’ than anything else in the world.

The outline of this programme was the subject of a little-known report compiled in May this year by the UK’s Automotive Council (AC) though not published by it or available on its website, but available here.

This report (the LUTZ Workshop Notebook) explained the AC is working with the UK Government’s Department for Business, Innovation, and Skills, and the UK Department for Transport to:

  • Explore the potential for Intelligent Mobility (I.M.) to deliver early benefits within five years and substantial benefits to the UK transport system by 2030.
  • Demonstrate the ability of the UK to perform at the leading edge of transport innovation.

  • Do something that is demonstrably ‘smarter’ than anything we can see elsewhere in the world (recognising that several other countries are already taking a very ambitious position on Intelligent Mobility).

 Pods

The pods are designed to see the extent to which an autonomous vehicle can provide a public transport service in an urban laboratory – Milton Keynes being the chosen laboratory. MK, of course, also being the new home of the Transport Systems Catapult.

The LUTZ document describes this as

‘a ground-breaking demonstration project in which autonomous vehicles will be deployed in the civic realm to explore the provision of public mobility services’.

The ground-breaking nature of this claim rather overlooks the similarity between this and the vehicles developed since the 1950s by, among others, the imagineers of the Walt Disney Corporation used in the Disney theme parks.

The whole history of driverless cars is systematically reviewed here by the futurologist Thomas Frey.

The AC says the project will proceed in a series of staged developments over a period of five years to the point where, in Milton Keynes,

…100 autonomous ‘pods’ are used to provide a fully operational public transport service. With a capacity of over 1,000 passenger journeys per hour, the pods will operate on pedestrian pathways, with pedestrians and pods allowed to interact freely.

Public transport

As the Campaign for Better Transport says in its comment on pods, if the intention is to really make public transport better then it need look no further than the immediate improvements that can be made to the bus services – and that would mean not continue making savage deep cuts in their provision.

For example, among the major telematics projects stalled at the moment in many UK counties, is the widespread adoption of real-time timetable and bus running information.

 It’s a drone

Omitted from the AC report is the fact that the source of much of the new driverless vehicle technology casts a terrible shadow over these projects and one which places an absolute limit on the ability of its programme to do anything demonstrably smarter than anyone else.

One of the major driving factors in telematics comes from the military, in particular the spectacular development of remotely piloted aircraft and bombs – particularly the drone.

As one of the futurist commentators (Frey, link above) has said,

…the military will likely find unusual uses in for these vehicles that have few civilian applications.

The paradox is that it may be possible to extract from the development of this powerful weapon of warfare a peaceful dividend in the guise of better public transport – a welcome example of swords being turned into ploughshares.

(Pointed) note on our illustration

Our illustration shows (the artists impression) of pods in Milton Keynes civic centre – taken from the AC report. Despite our best efforts we cannot trace the owner of this picture – a fact which highlights an issue for all those working on these projects: there has to be better communication between the various people and departments employed on them. The report and illustration was provided to us by the Department of Business, Innovation, and Skills. We first approached the report’s putative authors, the AC, telling them we wanted to use it. It was unable to trace its origin. It then referred the issue on to both the Department for Transport and the Business Innovation and Skills, again drawing a blank. If anyone reading this can shed any further light on this picture,  please contact us below.

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Jonathan Coe, Editor

Journalist and comms specialist for over 40 years – trained in print, broadcasting, and industrial intranet. Written about comms policy (eg. as radio editor at Time Out); held senior comms roles in public bodies (National Health Service, local government) and privatised undertakings (London Electricity – now Electricité de France). Since, has developed interests in the ordinary citizen's use of judicial review to challenge irrational decisions of government and the use of rights (like the Freedom of Information Act) to explore irrational decisions (like the BBC's original decision to close the BBC digital radio service BBC 6 Music).