Self-driving Vehicles: The Future is Now!

In July 2022, Mark Belcher (Our Community Services Development Manager for our Digital Enablement team), Simon Merrills (Our First Step and Patient Support Lead, who is also a Qualified Rehabilitation Officer for people with a visual impairment), and Alice Pennington (our Digital Communications Officer) visited the Etihad Campus to learn about, and try out, a range of self-driving vehicles as part of a ground-breaking research project by the Department for Transport (lead by the Centre for Connected and Autonomous Vehicles) and Britain Thinks.

Below, Mark talks about how the opportunity came about and what happened on the day.

Our invitation to try out self-driving vehicles

Our friends at Transport for Greater Manchester contacted us to see if we would like the opportunity to support a ground-breaking research project in Manchester.
The Department for Transport, led by the Centre for Connected and Autonomous Vehicles and Britain Thinks were running vehicle trials, in and around the Etihad Stadium and they wondered if we would like to get on board!

The trials gave the public, and community organisations like Henshaws, the opportunity to experience this new technology by taking a closer look, asking questions, and literally going for a ride. In total, 275 people were able to experience the vehicles.

On a grey, sodden Friday morning, Alice, Simon and I made our way to the Etihad Stadium. There were three vehicle types being showcased, from Aurrigo: the Auto-Shuttle, Auto-Pod, and Auto-Deliver. All were very impressive and we had a great time.

The vehicles

The Auto-Pod with Alice and Simon inside putting their seat belts on
Auto-Deliver

Here are some details on the three vehicle types that were operating at the event, and our experience of each.

Auto-Shuttle®

This is a ten-seater passenger bus which can be driven in a conventional way, with a driver or fully autonomously. Soon, these types of vehicles could provide an economical public transport solution for under-served parts of the country, as well as shuttle service in a Campus setting or at Airports, moving passengers and crews from ground to airside.

As you would expect, the Auto-Shuttle looked very futuristic from the outside: silver, black, sharp angles, and lots of dark grey tinted glass. Fully road legal, with registration plates on the front and back and a couple of non-standard parts too.

The vehicles use a combination of LIDAR and stereoscopic cameras which allow it to both sense an obstacle (LIDAR) and classify that obstacle as something to be aware of (video), e.g., a person that could move vs a post box that is always stationary.

Inside, the vehicle did not disappoint. The contrast was very effective, black walls, and cream seats, with neon strip lights on the edges. There was lots of darker glazing all around, including on the roof.

It was a dull day, heavy rain, but the space was very light and airy, and the rain did not make a racket on the glazed roof. The ride was smooth and steady, with a top speed of 20mph. I did not really notice this, until Simon said, “it rides like the metro, very linear, like it’s on a physical track”. Once he said it, you knew the journey was without driver (although, there was a driver in the cockpit).

We travelled along the vehicle free roads at the Etihad Campus, then moved onto the very, very busy Alan Turing Way. Within a couple of minutes, we heard Police sirens behind us, and I watched the cars part to let the Police through. We wondered how our vehicle would react. It did as you would expect, it moved to the left and allowed the emergency vehicle past.

After around 15 minutes we ended back at base, and time to chat to the team. First question: “was the vehicle programmed to deal with the emergency vehicle, or did you take over?” “I took over just for that incident, so the journey was automated 98% of the time”
The second question: “when would you envisage, the public, having a fully automated car, to use, parked on their drive”. His answer was swift and a little disappointing, (as some blind people I know, would love the opportunity to get back behind the wheel so to speak), “Never– it would be too expensive and wasteful, did you know that the average car is parked 96% of its life”. Once I licked my wounds, we made our way over to the Auto-Pod.

If you are interested more about car usage, check out this article by the RAC about car usage.

Auto-Pod®

The Auto-Pod is a much smaller, four-seat vehicle, designed to transport people on non-roads, like airports, city centres, sporting venues, university campuses and gated communities. It is capable of operating on a fully autonomous basis, however current UK and most international safety standards require a safety supervisor to be on-board whilst it is in autonomous mode of operation. Alice and Simon took this for a spin, together with its driver.

Again, the vehicle was very well put together. The interior was silver, black, and yellow, with clear glass windows and a solid roof. It reminded me a lot of a black cab – being solid and dependable.

The Auto-shuttle journey went without incident; unfortunately the Pod struggled due to the predictable Manchester monsoon. The LIDAR technology was compromised due to the rain droplets on its sensors, so it kept stopping (you really felt the impact when it stopped; it was an emergency stop motion) as it deduced an obstacle. The ‘safety supervisor’ had to get out and wipe the sensors and used the vehicle’s computer to get it going again on multiple occasions before it completed its short journey.

As with all new technology, problems come and so do their solutions. The safety supervisor acknowledged that the vehicle was a prototype so there are niggles that need ironing out. For all those petrol-heads out there, these vehicles are electric and the top speed on the Auto-Pod is 5mph.

Auto-Deliver®

The Auto-Deliver was designed and developed as a one-off prototype, as a home shopping / logistics vehicle. It is capable of operating in non-road going environments, such as university campuses and gated communities.

It can carry the same payload of forty standard containers and four chilled containers that are currently used by the fleets of home delivery vehicles operated by the leading UK supermarket chains.

Autonomous delivery has actually been trialed for a number of years. The Co-op has teamed up with Starship Technologies to deliver autonomous robot deliveries of groceries in various areas including Milton Keynes and Northampton, and is also expanding to other areas over time.

Customers can order their groceries via the Starship Food Delivery app (available on iOS and Android) and have them delivered in 20 minutes.

Media Coverage

ManchesterWorld were on site covering the events, and I had an opportunity to chat to them on camera. You can watch the video below, and read Manchester World’s article about the event.

Some more thoughts

The elephant in the room is that I have not really mentioned safety. There is lots of debate about the safety aspects of autonomous vehicles, but that would have doubled this blog.

What do Simon and Alice think, who work with me at Henshaws, and are both visually impaired?

Simon:

“As a person with quite severe sight loss, it’s not an unusual concept for me to get in any vehicle and not be in charge of it. So as far as driverless vehicles I don’t really have any reservations, they’re all sort of autonomous to me, I get in and think no more about it till I get out or off, just checking where I am in the journey. I have to trust whoever or whatever is in control, I would imagine I’ve flown in many a plane that the pilot hasn’t actually been flying.

As for the journey it was great, when you cannot see out of the windows because of a visual impairment you tend to miss all the hazards, so to me it was just like getting on a bus or in a taxi. One thing that did stand out for me was at the end of the journey, there was not a driver or guard to give me my final bit of journey instruction. I would generally ask “which way is the door to get in” and in some cases be sight guided to the final point. The trouble with being visually impaired is that a journey needs a solution from start to end, any gaps and your stuck”

Alice:

“Currently, if I want to go anywhere using transport, I have to rely on somebody to do the driving from A to B, whether that’s a train driver, taxi driver, or family member or friend. I can’t just get in a vehicle and travel somewhere by myself.

I hope that self-driving vehicles will enable me to use transport completely on my own, without the need to interact with a driver, transport staff or fellow passengers. I will have to trust the technology a great deal, and it will be something new to get used to, but I am really excited for what’s to come in the field of self-driving technology and the possibilities it will hopefully give me as somebody with no sight. I hope accessibility is put at the forefront of development so that a blind person can take control of the vehicle without sighted assistance, and thus have that option to use transport completely on their own.”

What does the future hold?

In general, there are types of self-driving vehicles that could be available for personal purchase, and those with self-driving features (i.e vehicles that are able to drive themselves in certain situations or circumstances) could be available from next year for private purchase. These are likely to be vehicles that can drive themselves at low speed on motorways. For more information, check out this article about realising the benefits of self-driving vehicles.

A final anecdote from me!

To finish off: my 8-year-old daughter asked if we would be buying her a car when she is 18. I have no idea where she got that as an idea, I can assure you, that it was not from me! I quickly responded with:

“You won’t need a car when you are 18, because our transport system will be amazing by then, and you won’t feel the need”.
I do hope I am right because she has got a memory like a steel trap!

Mark Belcher – community services development manager – digital

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