The autonomous shuttle hoping to transform public transport

A common criticism of self-driving vehicles is that many people, especially petrolheads, love getting behind the wheel and putting the pedal to the floor. It's true that some companies are developing autonomous replacements for the car on your driveway, but others are taking a slightly different approach. While the technology is still in its infancy, they're building driverless vehicles that supplement, rather than replace, traditional motors and public transport, with the idea being that they could ferry urbanites across short distances. An autonomous bus might sound less exciting than the recently rumored self-driving Apple car, but it could prove more useful and achievable, at least in the near future.

The Autonomous Meridian Shuttle

When the Meridian shuttle first glides into my field of vision, I can't help but feel a slight pang of disappointment. It's a far cry from the automated cars found in Minority Report and the daring, if totally unthreatening design straight out of Google HQ. With its exposed sides, tiny wheels and raised roof, it almost resembles a golf cart, which is hardly the most adventurous look for a pioneering driverless vehicle. The electric motor is whisper-quiet too, so it barely makes an impression as it rolls across London's Greenwich Peninsula. Of course, the large media gathering naturally attracts some inquisitive pedestrians, but when the camera crews and presenters begin to dissipate, it quickly blends into the background. "Some people who are looking at their phones really don't notice it at all," Nick Reed, academy director for the UK's Transport Research Laboratory (TRL) says. "The vehicle will come to a stop, let them pass, continue its journey and they haven't even noticed."

Inside the shuttle is a small, open area that seats roughly eight people. Although the car has a top speed of 28MPH, engineers have capped it at 13MPH to ensure passengers can safely stand if they prefer. It's a pleasant drive across the plaza and the built-in touchscreen makes it easy to choose a destination, but the experience isn't exhilarating.

If the vehicle looks familiar, that's because a near-identical design called Navya was shown off at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) last year. The new Meridian shuttle is essentially just a rebrand, and is now being tested by British company Phoenix Wings in one of three new driverless car projects recently funded by the UK government.

Like many self-driving vehicles, the shuttle uses LIDAR sensors -- a light-based (UV/visible/near-infrared) equivalent of radar -- to take stock of its surroundings. Before it's unleashed in a new area though, engineers have to drive around the route manually. Once the location has been mapped, the team can mark custom "stops" where passengers will be able to board and disembark. The shuttle will then compare the original map with its real-time LIDAR readings -- it scans 25 times per second with a 200-meter range -- to avoid any collisions while it's operating autonomously. By analyzing the size, distance and speed of nearby objects, the automobile can accurately identify pedestrians, cyclists, cars and inanimate objects, taking appropriate action whenever danger looms.

With low noise and emissions, Phoenix Wings believes the vehicle is perfectly suited for large pedestrian areas, such as campuses, hospitals and theme parks. But with 60 miles (roughly 12 hours) per charge, the company admits it isn't a perfect product. By September, it hopes to have a new version with twice the battery life, while a future "closed" model should protect passengers from Britain's notoriously wet and windy weather.

The driverless car project, which is being led by TRL, will test the Meridian shuttle over a two-year period. In the beginning, it'll be restricted to a simple route around The O2 and the riverside, allowing researchers to observe the public's reaction and interview passengers. Over time though, the team will experiment with more complex paths that cover the nearby cable car and residential areas. The shuttle can also be requested with a smartphone app, so engineers are keen to test it as an on-demand service.

"In the trial we're interested to understand how the public responds to it," Reed adds. "That's as a passenger, or coming across it as a regular pedestrian. Through the trials, we want to look at people's acceptance and trust in the technology, so we can understand where it's going to be best implemented and how we can deploy it most effectively."

Similar to the driverless car project set up in Bristol, researchers have also been tasked with looking at the legal and insurance aspects of these new autonomous vehicles. These efforts will almost certainly benefit from the new trials in Greenwich, as it gives the team an immediate opportunity to gather real-world data with a polished product. That's important because it should elicit natural responses from the public, which will likely be more valuable than those collected in closed, artificial environments. TRL also plans to test driverless valet-parking technology, as well as "the automation of cars, and potentially vans" in the latter stages of the project, which could add another dimension to its research.

Autonomous public transport is well-suited to pedestrianized areas, particularly at low speeds, and commuters, shoppers and the elderly are likely to embrace a vehicle that can shuttle them comfortably across short distances. Furthermore, off the back of new trials such as this one, it's possible that we'll see driverless public transport emerge way before you're able to trade in your old motor for an autonomous upgrade.

The Meridian shuttle is one of three driverless car projects we've covered in the UK recently. Check out part one and part two in our miniseries.