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.