London is currently crawling with autonomous vehicle trials. In Greenwich, Oxbotica recently trialled autonomous shuttle buses. In Lewisham and Southwark, Starship Technologies is seeing if robots could one day deliver our takeaways. In Woolwich, Ocado is testing autonomous delivery vans. In Newham, Nissan recently trialled fully autonomous electric cars. And now, in the Olympic Park in Stratford, a company called Keolis is trying out a little autonomous shuttle bus made by a company called Navya.
We went down to have a look. So, umm, here's what they look like:
First developed in 2015, the Navya bus can carry up to 15 passengers (with eight seated), and has a top speed of 45km/h - though obviously in the park, it was going significantly slower. The ride itself felt perfectly safe; you almost forget that there is no one driving. The only real sign that it was a robot driving was the incredibly prompt (and slightly more abrupt than comfortable) stops when obstacles were detected.
Like other autonomous vehicles, it uses a combination of GPS, cameras and LIDAR to navigate, and will stop if there is an obstacle blocking the route. For the trial, this meant that if there is something wrong, it is up to the onboard "operator" to use a connected Xbox controller to safely manoeuvre the bus out of the way. Obviously the intention is, according to the man wearing the official-looking shirt in the vehicle - to eventually do this with full autonomy. But at the moment, the vehicle is only taking baby steps, with the bus only travelling on an incredibly short route — it takes about 12 minutes to do the complete there-and-back.
As part of the trial, the organisers have set up several "bus stops" along the route, but because of security worries (they insisted on a bag-search before we were allowed to board), you can only get on at the Timber Lodge Cafe in the north east of the park, and and you can only alight at the other stops.
The bus is fully electric, and will run for eight hours (without air conditioning switched on; six hours with). And it can charge by being plugged in, or with an induction plate underneath. Once the vehicle is ready for normal usage, the idea is that passengers will be able to summon one with an Uber-style app, which will then be able to take them to their user-selected destination.
So, what's the final intention, I asked? Are they just testing the technology in a relatively safe environment, or do they intend to actually operate in the park? According to the official (who — being the brilliant journalist that I am — I totally failed to ask who he was), the aim is "both". There's the potential for these buses to come into normal service in the park in 2019, replacing the current human-driven shuttle buses that zip between various developments in and around the park, such as the Copper Box Arena and the Here East business park.
The best part is that during the current trial, anyone can turn up and have a go. If you'd like to experience a brief vision of the future, head on down to the Olympic Park before 30th September.