The slow self-driving cars of Greenwich
Shuffling home a bit tipsy along the river in Greenwich, the woman probably didn’t expect to see an automated pod following her every stumble. As if holding back due to awkward good manners, the self-driving vehicle trailed her down the bike path, unable to get around without coming too close.
Contrary to most of our assumptions about driverless cars – perhaps skewed by recent American trials – that’s exactly how carefully, slowly and deliberately the automated pods in this particular trial move as they run along the river near the O2 Arena.
The GATEway Project isn’t testing the technology behind driverless cars, although there’s plenty of engineers on site to fiddle with hardware and software. Instead, it’s trying to understand how we humans feel about the machines. “This whole project is to understand public acceptance, what people feel about it and how they react,” says Jim Hutchinson, CEO of software and systems designers Fusion Processing.
Initial research suggests we’re mostly positive, although there are plenty of safety and security concerns. “Safety is always commented on,” says senior psychologist at TRL and technical lead at GATEway, Kristen Fernández-Medina. “People see it as a potential positive, they can see the benefits of taking human error out of the equation… but then you’ve got the other side of things, including the cybersecurity thing, which people bring up a bit. People need to know if they can trust it as an occupant and as a pedestrian.”
A ride in a GATEway vehicle helps dissuade safety concerns – they move slowly, methodically. The pods are the same as those used at Heathrow to ferry fliers from the parking lot to the terminal, but instead of having a dedicated lane, here they use the bike lane – much to the annoyance of some cyclists, apparently.
They work using a combination of LIDAR, cameras, ultrasound and radar, as well has benefiting from pre-existing mapping of the area from an earlier driverless project. The “thinking” is all done on board – you can literally feel the vehicle stop and “think”, as Frost calls it, stopping and starting when it “gets in a pickle” – with monitoring and tracking done from a central station via 4G. This system is not without its issues, as I found out when my ride was delayed because it ran over its data limit, like some big, car-shaped pay-as-you-go phone.
A British approach
My trip in the four-seater pod comes a day after US authorities revealed a pedestrian had been killed by an Uber driverless car in Arizona – a fact that naturally came up in conversation with Fusion Processing’s Hutchinson and Andy Frost, head of development and trials at pod maker Westfield Technology Group. As the pod carrying us trundled slowly along the pathway, slowing down at busy spots and stopping if anyone stepped into its way, their take on the Uber case was cautious: it’s too early to say the causes.
It’s hard to imagine anyone feeling unsafe on a GATEway pod. It moves slowly, topping out at 5.5mph, whereas the Uber crash happened at 40mph on a 45mph road. It moves even more slowly when there’s a likelihood of people, such as the entrance to a construction site or the disembarkation point for a ferry.
It’s not a “thrill ride”
“We reduce speed to be good neighbours,” says Frost, saying it’s not a “thrill ride”.
Indeed, it’s clear the British are taking a different road to American developers when it comes to driverless cars. Arizona opened up its roads for testing, and there are a host of private corporations testing on public roads there and elsewhere across the country. In the UK, many of the tests are partnerships between industry, government and academia: the GATEway project involves Westfield, Heathrow, and Fusion Processing, as well as research group TRL and the University of Greenwich, with some funding from quango Innovate UK. That’s not to say companies haven’t had access to public roads, with Nissan having a few close calls in a test in East London last year, but trials have so far been limited rather than long-running.
They also haven’t all focused on the technology. While Uber et al in Arizona are trying to make a level-five automated car to carry passengers, the GATEway project wants to see how driverless cars could be used and how we’ll react to them. “It’s starting a conversation, showcasing the technology and the use cases, and getting people involved in the development process,” says Fernandez-Medina. “It’s not just putting the vehicles on the road; it’s how they’re going to impact people.”
That starts from the inside out, as the project also considers what design elements need to be included to ensure people feel safe, not only with being driven in an automated car, but also with being shut into a pod with three other strangers. Frost says passengers are often “a bit shocked” to see there’s no steering wheel, but most people are excited to go for a driverless ride, even if a safety steward is at the controls. Frost was ours for the trip; he had to take over the controls and drive with a joystick after two pods tried to be in the same waiting point at the same time.
“Down here, there aren’t any rules”
One change from user feedback has been a reduction in window tint. Pedestrians like being able to see in, says Frost, while those inside find it less intimidating to share the pod with others if it isn’t as closed off from the outside world.
Figuring out how that outside world will work with the pod isn’t easy, either. While it may sound comparatively simple to have a driverless project on bike paths rather than motorways, it brings unique challenges. Hutchinson notes that roads have rules which people, be they drivers or pedestrians, normally follow. “Down here, there aren’t any rules – it’s a free-for-all,” adds Frost.
When a pod ambles past, how will pedestrians react? They mostly pull out their phones to snap photos, judging from my 3.5km ride. What if a pod sneaks up behind a headphone-wearing pedestrian? There needs to be a way to pass people without alarming them. If a cyclist passes on the inside – which they do, Frost says – how can the pod spot it and make space without causing trouble?
And what happens if a drunk lady staggers back and forth across the pathway, leaving the pod edging to the left and back again as it tries to pass her? Hilarity, mostly – Frost says there was plenty of laughter both inside and outside the pod.
Images: GATEway Project