Didcot trial seeks to create driverless ‘heaven’

Depending on who you’re listening to, driverless vehicles, all kinds of vehicles are either poised to take over the world very soon or media hype that will take decades to become reality.

They certainly feel close to becoming reality when you visit transport exhibitions – which are these days incomplete if they don’t feature a driverless vehicle. Last week’s IT-TRANS show in Karlsruhe, in south-west Germany featured a driverless shuttle bus service inside the exhibition hall!

Many of the speakers at these shows are working on the assumption that connected and autonomous vehicles (CAVs) are soon going to change the way we travel – making mobility cheaper and more plentiful.  And they’re asking whether we are going to create a driverless ‘heaven’ or a driverless ‘hell’.

In driverless hell, everyone will own a driverless car and use it for every journey they make. Road safety may be improved and (local) air quality may be better if the vehicles are electric, but congestion will remain a problem even though CAVs are expected to make much more efficient use of roadspace. Public transport will become unviable as people opt instead for self-driving pods, further adding to congestion.

In driverless heaven, however, we will have our own vehicle when we need one but we’ll share one when that is appropriate. Many of us, perhaps the overwhelming majority, won’t see a need to own our own pod. And driverless vehicles will be fully integrated with other transport modes, including (driverless) buses and trains, to provide an area with the optimum door-to-door mobility.

The first attempt to create this driverless heaven in the UK will be in Didcot in Oxfordshire, described last year by researchers as the “most normal town in England”. The town is set to host the first use of CAVs on public roads, following the announcement of government funding into a trial project.

Innovate UK last month announced the award of £2.5m to trial self-driving vehicles in and around Milton Park, the large, high-tech business and science hub near Didcot. The vehicles will travel between private roads at Milton Park and the public roads that link the site with nearby transport services.

The 30-month MultiCAV project will be undertaken by a consortium of organisations with different sector backgrounds who are investing in the development of autonomous vehicles, and led by UK transport operator FirstGroup.

Despite being relatively close to Didcot Parkway station, most travel to and from Milton Park is currently made in private vehicles. With the site set to expand in the coming years, the MultiCAV consortium is building on the work already underway to provide the park with long-term, safe sustainable transport.

Commuters to the site will be able to connect with the self-driving pods from local transport services, while booking and paying for their trip in one easy process.

It is hoped that by the end of the trial up to 50% of private vehicle journeys within the business park will switch to using the shared, electric-powered pods.

John Birtwistle, project lead for FirstGroup, said: “We’re excited to be leading the first mainstream use of autonomous vehicles in the UK. By connecting the Milton Park development with the existing regional transport infrastructure, including Great Western Railway trains at Didcot Parkway station, commuters will see a tangible reason to leave their cars at home.

“It’s a huge step towards tackling the problem of congestion on our roads and enabling the sustainable future development of the business park and, potentially, other similar sites in the future.”

Will it be heaven or will it be hell? We will have to wait see.

About the Author

This post was written by Robert Jack. Robert is Managing Editor and Publisher of Passenger Transport. He has worked as a journalist, editor and publisher in the passenger transport sector for 18 years. He has played a key role in many transport-related conferences and events.

Robert Jack

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