Pods in the Park

Tuesday 10th September 2019

Readers will know of my scepticism concerning Demand Responsive Transport; I’ve made enough journeys to conclude there’s no way such schemes will ever be commercially viable let alone more convenient for passengers over a fixed timetabled bus route. The Speke trial comprising a one bus fixed timetabled route (with passengers knowing when and where the bus is located) replaced by a one bus flexible ‘on-demand’ route (with passengers never knowing where the bus might be or when it might come, until logging into a smartphone, before having to ‘demand’ it) is the latest example of hype over substance.

Autonomous vehicles are an even more fanciful idea for on-demand transport whose time, I reckon, will never come (in my lifetime) on public roads in any main stream application. However there may well be applications in restricted zones with specific characteristics such as within University campuses, at Airports, large hospital sites or shopping malls. Or in former Olympic Parks now redeveloped as a broad based leisure destination over an extensive area named after the monarch.

Which brings me to another trial of autonomous pod type vehicles in the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, Stratford. The previous trial, in September 2017 involved a partnership between French company Navya and Keolis.

IMG_2837.jpgThat team also operated a very small scale public service using pods with a capacity of twelve in Lyon.

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This latest trial in Stratford lasting two weeks began last Monday and involves Heathrow Airport and a British company – Westfield Autonomous Vehicles part of Westfield Sports Cars – using much smaller capacity pods, seating just four people in comfortable seats.

The pods are to the same design as those used to connect Heathrow’s Terminal Five with the car park on exclusive guided track. Heathrow Airport are running this trial to test how the technology works on open pathways used by pedestrians and cyclists around the Park. The Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park prides itself on being a hub for innovation and may even use such pods to connect people to its various venues in the future.

The pods have been ‘taught’ the circuit, which is just over a mile in length, by initially being taken around with a human pilot using a joy stick. This includes manoeuvring into three ‘bus stops’ at each ‘corner’ of the circuit as well as the ‘terminus’.

Having ‘learned’ the route the pod can take off on its own using a combination of RADAR, LADAR (some kind of lasar tech) and ultra sonic sensors to pick up anyone who comes within scope of the pods progress.

There are twenty four cameras and sensors fitted all around the vehicle. If anyone or anything comes within a short range of the moving pod then it stops automatically until the ‘object’ moves out of the way – which obviously is the big downside on making autonomous vehicles work in practice in a public place with anti-social behaviour not uncommon.

However I was told a follow up trial is planned for January when the next stage of development involves the pod being programmed to take avoiding action to manoeuvre around such objects which will certainly be interesting to see.

There were two pods out when I visited the trial this morning. The idea is to provide a ten minute frequency on the circuit which takes about twenty minutes to complete based at the Timber Lodge restaurant/cafe. The pods can travel at speeds up to 25mph but are restricted to just 5mph in this trial in the Park and a marshall walks in front of each one while a technician monitors progress using a lap top inside the pod. This person also seems to get the pod started after it’s stopped at each bus stop.

There’s only space therefore for three passengers on board but that seemed to be coping with the interest being shown from the public this morning. Originally the trial envisaged potential passengers asking a marshall using an app to request a pod from one of the bus stops around the circuit with a specific code which would then enable you to track where the pod was. Ominously for on-demand transport that idea was dropped soon after the trial began as being impractical.

Heathrow Airport have a big financial stake in the technology and this trial. They see scope for further applications particularly airside where they have to move staff entailing costly contracts with bus companies. Autonomous pods will reduce the number of bus trips within and around the airport. Heathrow will also benefit financially if others find a suitable application for such vehicles and that’s why they’re heavily involved in this trial and January’s follow up. The technician on my pod trip was employed by Heathrow Airport.

There are plans for more trials at Cribbs Causeway in Bristol as well as in the city centre, at Birmingham and Manchester airports and Grand Central in Birmingham. Westfield also state trails have taken place in the Lake District.

It’s certainly very clever technology; it’s got lots of funding both public and private, but it’s a small scale trial. Very small scale. Interesting nonetheless.

Roger French