Project Announcements in UK and USA

Milton Keynes, Buckinghamshire

Recently it was in the news that autonomous pods will be on the streets of Milton Keynes by 2017 inexpensively ferrying 1 or 2 people between the town’s station and city centre. They are anticipated to reach 12 mph and share space with pedestrians rather than existing road traffic.

My heart sank when I read how lacking in ambition this project sounds. 12mph? But I suppose this will be the first autonomous service anywhere which will serve a number of functions:

  • the opportunity to test autonomy software and sensors at speeds where a mistake or an accident is less catastrophic
  • familiarizing the public with the sight and the idea of vehicles without a driver
  • promote investment in further projects
  • raising awareness of how close truly driverless cars are

Existing pod systems such as at Heathrow Airport travel along their own track.

Additionally the business secretary Vince Cable announced the creation of a fund to promote research in new propulsion technology which could reach £1bn. The vision is to position the UK as a leading tech centre.

In Ann Arbor, Michigan they have a different target in their sites.

An autonomous town is planned complete with receivers built into new infrastructure to provide warnings and assist in running a fleet of electric, self driving shared cars. This does sound more ambitious but with a more distant target of 2020.

Interesting to note the required investment in infrastructure, in contrast to the Oxford University approach of zero investment required.

If successful this project really will have the horses running towards the long term goals of widely available vehicle autonomy.

Where’s the money coming from for this? There is mention of the 3 big car manufacturers being significant partners so it sounds like private money is involved.

So in the US the car makers (and tech companies) are leading the charge. The UK lacks home grown car companies so it makes sense that government drive is needed and that producing the systems and the software will become more important than knocking out cars.

In both cases the projects are going to make use of the universities working on the robotics, both since they are following alternative approaches, will they eventually be compatible? That may not matter given the 3000 mile ocean in between. But if you want to drive, say from France to Vietnam over the continuous land mass you want common protocols as we have with the World Wide Web. If private money produces the technology we they be as generous as Tim Berners-Lee and give up rights to future earnings?

Imagine if Europe had free access to the technology and in the States a fee was being skimmed from each user! 

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