Self-driving pods could be the (boring) future of urban transport

A look inside London’s ongoing experiment with autonomous shuttles

A pedestrian takes a few pictures then walks away. A pair of cyclists overtakes without a backward glance. A builder barks at us, just for fun. But overall, no one really cares about our self-driving pod as it bumps sedately along the riverside in the quiet London borough of Greenwich. And that’s very good news.

Pods could be the future of urban transport, say some. They’re quiet, compact, and they maneuver more easily through Europe’s winding streets than regular cars. Since last April, London has been trialing these autonomous vehicles with funding from a consortium of private and public institutions known as the Gateway Project. The aim is to find out how self-driving technology can best be integrated into the UK’s cities, and a big part of that work focuses on pods. They’re not trying to develop the hardware, like the Ubers and Waymos of this world, but explore what works best for the public and whether they even like it.

Are people afraid of self-driving pods? Do they think they’re weird? And will they ever stop absentmindedly wandering in front of us, causing our pod to judder to a halt like a student driver who can’t work the clutch? (The answer to the last question is very much “no.”)

So far, this seems to be one of the most obvious results of the Greenwich Gateway trials: people are remarkably chill about self-driving vehicles in pod form. More than 5,000 members of the public have signed up to use the service as it ferries people up and down a 3.4-kilometer stretch of the river. In a recent survey of around 1,000 individuals, 43 percent said they felt positive about the concept, while only 11 percent didn’t like it. The rest (46 percent) were undecided, worried about either hacking or road safety.

04. April 2018

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