First pod vehicle unveiled

Driverless pod
Driverless pod

The first of three pod vehicles was unveiled in Milton Keynes today as part of a pioneering project to trial automated vehicles in pedestrianised areas.

The electric-powered LUTZ Pathfinder pod was presented to commuters and other members of the public outside Milton Keynes Central train station.

Members of the Transport Systems Catapult project team were on hand to answer questions from passerbys.

Transport Systems Catapult CEO Steve Yianni said: “This is a very exciting day for everybody involved in the LUTZ Pathfinder project, because it signals the completion of the manufacturing phase and the effective start of the autonomous technology trial.

“When you consider that there wasn’t even a design in place for this vehicle less than 18 months ago, it has been a really quick turnaround to now have our first research vehicle ready to start work, and this has only been possible as a result of our successful collaboration with RDM, MRG and Milton Keynes Council.”

The event marked the completion of the first project vehicle by Coventry-based manufacturers RDM Group. Afterwards, the two-seater pod was delivered to Oxford University’s Mobile Robotics Group (MRG) to begin the installation of the pod’s autonomous control system (ACS).

Following the installation work, the pod will undergo a series of calibration tests at a private test track before returning to Milton Keynes for the start of the public trials. At that stage, the pods will be the first fully automated vehicles to be trialled on public pedestrianised areas in the UK.

Once the ACS has been installed, the public trials will get underway in Milton Keynes, with the pods being driven initially in manual mode – allowing them to map and ‘learn’ their environment.

They will then begin to operate in autonomous mode, but with a trained operator still remaining in each pod, ready to take back control of the vehicle if necessary.

The pods will have a maximum capable speed of 15 mph (24km/h) but will be limited electronically depending upon the environment they are travelling in (for example, moving more slowly in congested areas).

“Safety has been our paramount concern throughout the planning process, which is why we will continue to have a human operator at the wheel for the duration of the trial,”

Mr Yianni added. “But the LUTZ Pathfinder project is an important first step towards a future where self-driving vehicles can be called up on demand, as and when people need them.”

David Keene, RDM Group CEO said: “Today represents an exciting stage for the LUTZ Pathfinder project and is a key milestone for RDM. We continue to develop our autonomous pod platform which has worldwide applications within many transportation sectors. The project is enabling the autonomous vehicle to be tested and evaluated in its intended environment”

Professor Paul Newman of Oxford’s MRG said: “We are now very much looking forward to further developing, deploying and then testing our ‘Mercury’ autonomy system on this vehicle.

“This is an important and exciting stage in this project which will then enable us to test the technology’s potential in the public trials.”

The arrival of the first pod was also welcomed by Pete Marland, leader of Milton Keynes Council, who said: “We expect people arriving at the central station will be one of the most frequent users of the pods, so it’s appropriate that commuters get an early close up look at one.

“It will be easy to call up a pod on your smartphone as you pull into the station, which will then be waiting for you outside. While they look futuristic, we’re one step closer to the pods being an everyday part of life in Milton Keynes.”

Findings from the LUTZ Pathfinder project will also be used to support the larger-scale UK Autodrive programme which is set to trial a fleet of 40 self-driving pods, as well as “regular” road-based cars, in Milton Keynes and Coventry.