Self-driving pods could be the (boring) future of urban transport

Self-driving pods could be the (boring) future of urban transport

A pedestrian takes a few pictures then walks away. A pair of cyclists overtakes without a backward glance. A builder barks at us, just for fun. But overall, no one really cares about our self-driving pod as it bumps sedately along the riverside in the quiet London borough of Greenwich. And that’s very good news.

Pods could be the future of urban transport, say some. They’re quiet, compact, and they maneuver more easily through Europe’s winding streets than regular cars. Since last April, London has been trialing these autonomous vehicles with funding from a consortium of private and public institutions known as the Gateway Project. The aim is to find out how self-driving technology can best be integrated into the UK’s cities, and a big part of that work focuses on pods. They’re not trying to develop the hardware, like the Ubers and Waymos of this world, but explore what works best for the public and whether they even like it.

Are people afraid of self-driving pods? Do they think they’re weird? And will they ever stop absentmindedly wandering in front of us, juddering to a halt like a student driver who can’t work the clutch? (The answer to the last question is very much “no.”)

So far, this seems to be one of the most obvious results of the Greenwich Gateway trials: people are remarkably chill about self-driving vehicles in pod form. More than 5,000 members of the public have signed up to use the service as it ferries people up and down a 3.4-kilometer stretch of the river. In a recent survey of around 1,000 individuals, 43 percent said they felt positive about the concept, while only 11 percent didn’t like it. The rest (46 percent) were undecided, worried about either hacking or road safety.

Photo by Tom Warren / The Verge

With the recent death caused by a self-driving Uber in Arizona, road safety is very much on everyone’s mind on the morning of our a test drive. “It’s a very sad event, but I would not want to jump to any conclusions before the facts are known,” is all Jim Hutchinson, CEO of Fusion Processing, will say. Others refused to comment.

At any rate, the pods of Greenwich (for which Fusion Processing provides some of the hardware) are literal and metaphorical miles away from the self-driving SUVs of San Francisco. They’re friendly and unthreatening — all smooth edges and round corners, like a giant pill big. They’re also very slow, moving no faster than 10 mph on the wide tracks (half road, half pavement) of their riverside beat.

The pods look like giant pill bugs and travel at a suitable crawl

Each pod has a pair of double doors, with two leatherette benches facing one another inside. For these test runs, there’s also an engineer present, sitting in the corner and watching a tablet showing various LIDAR and camera streams. He also has a joystick tucked underneath his feet, which will give him manual control should anything go wrong. Our own steward is quiet but friendly. He’s been riding in the pods since last October and says that after a while, you start to understand they’re thinking. “You know when it’s hesitating about something,” he says. “You sense it. It’s like a novice driver moving the steering wheel too much.”

We get to feel plenty of this during our ride because, it turns out, one downside of people being very relaxed around self-driving pods is that they tend to walk in front of them a lot. Hutchinson describes this, generously, as falling into a “range of behavior” from pedestrians, which goes from “completely oblivious, don’t even notice it’s there” to “‘let’s go and jump in front of it and see if it stops.’” He adds quickly: “Of course, it does stop. But it happens quite a bit.”

It’s findings like these that are going to shape the UK’s policy on autonomous vehicles. Trevor Dorling, director of the borough of Greenwich’s digital program, says he’s hopeful that schemes like the Gateway Project will eventually become permanent fixtures, ferrying people around awkward bits of the city that existing services don’t quite cover. “The version we’re most comfortable with is connecting people to mass transit in cities,” says Dorling. “One of these obviously isn’t the most effective way of getting to Manchester. That’s why you have high-speed rail.”

Grid View

  • Photo by Tom Warren / The Verge
  • Photo by Tom Warren / The Verge
  • Photo by Tom Warren / The Verge
  • Photo by Tom Warren / The Verge
  • Photo by Tom Warren / The Verge
  • Photo by Tom Warren / The Verge

And this attitude has traction. In Germany, state-owned rail company Deutsche Bahn is testing similar self-driving pods that will link railway stations and town centers. In France, local startup Navya is building larger, 15-seat shuttles and has set up trials for them in two locations in the US, Las Vegas and Michigan. In all these cases, the pods are running on set routes, filling in gaps in the transport infrastructure. And because of these set routes, it’s easier to make them self-driving, since you come across fewer unexpected obstacles. Technically, the Greenwich pods have Level 4 autonomy, meaning they can operate without human interaction except in difficult weather conditions.

And the neighborhood certainly provides a challenging testing ground. Greenwich is situated in the southeast section of London, and it has a mix of suburban neighborhoods, former industrial lots, disused docks, and one (former) royal hunting park, all served by a range of transport links. “We’ve got roundabouts, mini-roundabouts, crossings, pedestrians, the ferry’s just there, there’s the tube’s nearby, and the Air Line cable car,” says Dorling. For companies that want to test the mettle of their algorithms, “it’s certainly proved attractive.”

The members of the public who have been testing the pods seem to be happy with them, too. Louisa, Angelica, and Ben, who all signed up for rides on the same day The Verge did are all positive about the experience — though for all three, their ride was for novelty’s sake, rather than part of a meaningful journey. “It was cracking,” says Ben, though he adds “it needs to be a bit quicker.” Louisa says she especially likes the idea of getting a driverless pod on your way back from a night out. “You’d have the car to yourself, you can just jump in with your friends, put your music on, relax.”

But these complaints aren’t just quibbles. If the pods are too slow and if they can’t carry enough people, it’s possible they won’t be able to be a meaningful part of public transit. (You can only fit four people in each pod, compared to 87 passengers in a standard London double-decker bus.) Although the underlying technology is developing quickly and public reception is positive, it’s difficult to say whether vehicles like this are economically viable. How much money is a city willing to pay for a service that doesn’t see heavy use?

Dorling, at least, is positive. “Really what we’re trying to do is catch a wave here,” he says. “There’s less driving going on in younger generations anyway, so if we can find a solution that fits these changes, while also reducing pollution and congestion, well, why not?”

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