Tech Transformers

New driverless vehicles head for London’s roads


The newest driverless cars for London have been revealed, but the technology isn't coming from the likes of Google or a global car manufacturer.

Believed to be a first for London, the design and technology of these self-driving vehicles will take inspiration from the "Ultra PODS" currently used at London's Heathrow Airport; with the plan to transform this technology into shuttle vehicles that can navigate on roads rather than on dedicated tracks.

The new driverless vehicles will be similar to the shuttles found at London's Heathrow Airport, currently operating at Terminal 5.
Courtesy of GATEway Project

As part of the £8 million ($11.4 million) Greenwich Automated Transport Environment (GATEway) project, three British firms — Heathrow Enterprises, Oxbotica and Westfield Sportscars — will be joining forces to develop the existing pods so they can function and perform safely within an urban setting. The exact design of the on-road vehicles has yet to be confirmed.

If successful, the vehicles could be publicly trialed as soon as this summer in Greenwich, London. The route for the trials is still being finalized. However, GATEway plans on running the trials "alongside pedestrians and cyclists in Greenwich," Professor Nick Reed, technical lead of the GATEway project, told CNBC via email.

Other trials set to take place within GATEway's driverless car project include autonomous valet parking and automated deliveries.

Other independent projects involving driverless cars are taking place around the U.K., including U.K. Autodrive's project in Milton Keynes and Coventry, and Venturer's in Bristol.

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The GATEway trials will be tested over a three-to-six-week period, with potential plans to extend, and hopes of running "a service where members of the public can book to use the shuttle vehicles over defined routes" during the trial, Reed added.

The trials will help the team learn how autonomous vehicles would work and fit in with urban mobility needs, and what barriers may stand in the way from making this a reality. Along with public engagement and acceptance of the pods, GATEway will be taking into account factors including insurance and cyber security.

"The purpose of the project is to understand and overcome the technical, legal and societal barriers of implementing automated vehicles in an urban environment. Once we understand the issues and challenges surrounding automated vehicles, we can then see how deployment can best work."

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Each company will provide necessary resources to the technology's development, with Heathrow Enterprises being in charge of vehicle software engineering, and Oxbotica looking after mapping and other sensors, to make certain each vehicle functions safely. Leader of the project, Westfield Sportscars, will have the honor of overseeing the testing and design of the driverless pods.

When it comes to the three firms, Reed said he had "great confidence" that they would deliver "an efficient, reliable and effective autonomous solution" for the GATEway trials.

If the trials prove to be successful, Reed believes society could expect to see these vehicles become a more familiar sight in many cities across the globe.

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By CNBC's Alexandra Gibbs, follow her @AlexGibbsy and @CNBCi