The actual arrival of autonomous vehicles: pod-like, self-driving buses

by on November 5, 2013 at 2:31 pm in Uncategorized | Permalink

Milton Keynes, a town north of London, has announced that it will be deploying 100 driverless pods (officially known as ULTra PRT transport pods) as a public transportation system. A similar system has been running for two years at Heathrow airport. The plan is to have the system up and running by 2015, with a full rollout by 2017. The move marks the first time that self-driving vehicles will be allowed to run on public roads in that country.

The  look like very small metro rail cars, with sliding doors for exit and entry. Passengers can call (and pay £2 per trip) for a pod using their smartphone. The pods travel using rubber wheels on a special roadway, not a track, between curbs that help in guidance. Each pod is computer driven by independent onboard systems, though humans () can take over if there is a problem. Each can hold up to two people and their luggage and travels just 12mph. Plans call for the pods to carry passengers between the downtown area, the business district and the train station.

There is more here, via Nathan Weideman.

1 john personna November 5, 2013 at 2:35 pm

I welcome the advance, but I think “the move marks the first time that self-driving vehicles will be allowed to run on public roads in that country” and “the pods travel using rubber wheels on a special roadway, not a track, between curbs that help in guidance” are a little bit at odds.

2 john personna November 5, 2013 at 2:40 pm

Basically it sounds like Roomba level intelligence 😉

3 JWatts November 5, 2013 at 3:53 pm

Not really. A Roomba doesn’t need tracks. This is more like amusement park ride level intelligence.

4 Bjartur November 5, 2013 at 3:56 pm

The special roadway is not a track. Please stop dissing the special roadway.

5 john personna November 5, 2013 at 5:59 pm

I was thinking there was some collision avoidance. And you know, navigating between curbs is in a narrow sense …

6 Bjartur November 5, 2013 at 3:54 pm

£1 discount on the ride if you empty out the dustbin before you get in.
Unmentioned weakness of the system: susceptible to complete shutdown if anyone leaves a rug with a long fringe on the “special roadway”.

7 dearieme November 5, 2013 at 5:50 pm

“Milton Keynes was chosen as a test site due to its proximity to London, its unusually wide roads ..”: bugger the roads – what about its notorious collection of roundabouts?

8 Jim personna November 5, 2013 at 2:43 pm

Morgantown’s PRT has been running since 1975, so this is not really new technology.

9 prior_approval November 5, 2013 at 11:58 pm

Damn – I was going to mention that. Along with Vancouver’s Skytrain system, which is somewhat more distant from the UK system noted in the post –

10 Hadur November 5, 2013 at 2:51 pm

My immediate response was also “how does this differ from Morgantown, WV?”

11 David C November 5, 2013 at 2:52 pm

@Jim personna was thinking the same thing

I guess when the technology has become so simple that even an airport was willing to invest in research on it, governments are finally starting to wake up and realize their mistake

12 whatsthat November 5, 2013 at 4:13 pm

Most airports have this, don’t they? Interesting, so driverless vehicles will go from airports to the roads.

13 Z November 5, 2013 at 4:17 pm

It used to be that futurists imagined a world where technology made life more exciting. Today, futurists imagine a world where technology makes us more like North Korea. The cars are already ugly and drab, may as well take what little fun in having them out as well. Perhaps the next great innovation will be to make the seats really uncomfortable so you don’t spend too much time “driving.”

14 Therapsid November 5, 2013 at 4:23 pm

The main difference is that people today do not respond enthusiastically to new technological advances.

The default response is not, as it used to be – “What will those scientists/inventors come up with next?”

Today, the knee-jerk response to dismiss the new technology, to say that it’s already been done, that it’s not practical, that it raises serious liability issues, that it might not be 100% safe, that it will make life too easy and boring, etc.

This mindset appears to transcend the political spectrum. Only some libertarians and people in Silicon Valley seem to have the old optimistic pro-tech mindset.

15 john personna November 5, 2013 at 6:46 pm

The Silicon Valley tech entrepreneurship is definitely strong. We are also at a point where they are trying to break out from software and web ventures into “real life.”

Basically people are excited about their Fitbits today, and tomorrow?

16 Sun Tzu November 5, 2013 at 4:48 pm

Z, the younger generation mostly doesn’t see cars as very exciting. They (we) seem them as a means to get from point a to point b, in an often tedious fashion. If a computer can drive instead, not only would this be much safer than dealing with problems like drunk driving or fatigue on long drives, but it would free up time to do something else more exciting (or more productive at least) than navigating highways and city streets on the commute to work.

I’d say this qualifies as exciting, it’s just that it’s less about the car itself than what it allows people to do instead of having to pay attention to something which is often really boring.

17 Z November 5, 2013 at 6:39 pm

I did not consider that angle. The self-driving care will allow the youth to get more time in on Twitter and Instagram. The phrase, “no one can replace you” comes to mind for some reason. We are inventing robots to all of these tasks as we amuse ourselves to death.

18 john personna November 5, 2013 at 6:48 pm

Yeah, why don’t these kids pour a scotch and watch 60-Minutes like their fathers did? 😉

19 Thor November 6, 2013 at 2:55 am

“60 Minutes”??? I hear it takes 60 minutes to watch it! I’d like the same stories in a 22 min. format please.

20 Nikki November 5, 2013 at 10:00 pm

So insightful. Not enjoying car ownership enough is *exactly* like North Korea. Have you already written a blog post about kids these days and how it’s their fault that your list of activities more fun than driving is limited to using Twitter and using Instagram?

21 thinner November 6, 2013 at 12:11 am

If you want to discuss fun activities one comes to mind pretty easily. But it is more *thrilling* to do it in a car where one party is driving, rather than a self-propelling vehicle.

22 Seth November 5, 2013 at 5:17 pm

Some thoughts: 12 mph is R? It sounds remarkably cheap, so rail advocates should hate it. I wonder what the Mile High Club for PRTs will be called.

23 conrad6 November 5, 2013 at 6:12 pm

Apparently they want mobile SCORPION STARE see-to-kill capability (Stross, C., “The Concrete Jungle”). I won’t be going there on my next visit to England.

24 john personna November 5, 2013 at 6:52 pm

Stross is awesome, but I prefer the less metaphysical lines of novels … like Saturn’s Children? How will the Milton Keynes omnibus feel when we are gone …

25 valuethinker November 6, 2013 at 9:37 am

The thing about the Laundry novels from Strauss is that they are rooted in pastiches of various spy fiction authors.

We’ve done Len Deighton, Ian Fleming (James Bond)– what if Thunderball turns out to be a real live Cthulu monster?, Antony Price, Modesty Blaise (for my reckoning, that was by far the creepiest- -when he pulls the Fimbulwinter down on Denver and there is no way out of town…)…

also the sense of humour about bureaucratic politics is very modern Brit– same sort of thing you get in ‘Level 34’.

26 Roy November 5, 2013 at 8:23 pm

Why on earth would you ever want to go to Milton Keynes anyway? That is like taking a vacation trip to Fairfax County.

27 thinner November 6, 2013 at 12:13 am

Maybe there’s authentic fusion ethnic cuisine made by a Nepalese-Polish couple? The restaurant is located in a gas station and has motel rooms on the floor above. No glamorous leggy blonds in sight.

28 Rahul November 6, 2013 at 6:50 am

…authentic fusion. Oxymoron right there. 🙂

29 valuethinker November 6, 2013 at 9:34 am


It is a city which fascinates urban planners. The parallel grid system (borrowed *back* from North America) and the roundabouts mean it has minimum traffic congestion compared to most English towns. It’s also the most car dependent city in the UK.

It is the most successful new town of the 1960s new towns. People like living there. It has the youngest population in England, on average. It has a very low rate of unemployment– employers are attracted to it, the workforce and ease of access etc. It has relatively good rail links.

The best American example I can think of might be Irvine California. Or Columbia Maryland perhaps.

30 Brian November 6, 2013 at 11:21 am

Wait, you mean there really is a Milton Keynes?

“I’m sure there’s a Milton Keynes” – Sir Desmond Glaesbrook

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