A group of techies located near the towns of Wageningen and Ede in the Netherlands wanted to create a shuttle service that could take people from the Ede train station to Wageningen University. They envisioned small, autonomous electric transportation modules that would drive themselves between the two. The vehicles were already available in the form of electrically powered people pods designed and built by EasyMile of Toulouse, France.
And who does autonomous driving better than Google? So the group called Google and asked if they could use its autonomous driving systems. “No, you cannot,” came the swift reply. OK. Plan B. Build your own self-driving systems. With help from technology students at the University of Delft, that’s exactly what they did. For a total investment of under $4,000,000, the group modified EasyMile modules by adding radar and a guidance system so the WEpods, as they are called, can drive autonomously on public roads. That’s an amazing accomplishment.
The process has only taken two years so far, which is an incredibly short time in the tech world.”The secret was developing without a lot of parties involved,” Bakker says. “We were able to make quick decisions and move forward.”
And for you doubters out there, yes, the WEpods only travel 15 miles per hour and, yes, they only travel one route. But they may be the first vehicles allowed to operate legally on public roads without a human driver in the world. After two months of test runs down a 200 meter stretch of public road, the system will start transporting human passengers in May, according to Curbed.com.
“It’s very strange to trust a robot to drive you from one place to another,” says project manager Alwin Bakker. He says the government funded technology will be designed as an open-source project, meaning it will be available for other companies and municipalities to adapt and utilize. Already Rotterdam, Amsterdam, and Brussels have expressed an interest in the self driving WEpods.
Perhaps the biggest hurdle the team faced was getting approval from local authorities to operate the WEpods on public roads. The law often trails far behind what technology is capable of. Regulators around the world are rushing to catch up with what Tesla and Google and others are doing in the area of self driving cars. Elon Musk says some day, they will be as common as self service elevators, but that day is still far off.
Citymobil2, a program partially funded by the European Union, has a plan to address that very issue. If all goes according to plan, member countries of the EU could see driverless transportation legal before the United States. As reported by Tech Insider, Citymobil2 has been testing its driverless electric shuttles for the past three years.
Citymobil2’s electric shuttles were created by mobile app developer RoboSoft and driverless vehicle company EasyMile. They can carry up to 10 passengers at speeds of 15 miles per hour. Citymobil2 is about to complete the last of its trials. It will present a proposed legal framework that would make driverless public transportation possible to the European Commission by August of this year.
Citymobil2 thinks of driverless vehicles as a similar to railroads. “Railways are the safest land transport system because the system is designed as a whole — it allows for a safety assessment of the whole structure,” says project manager Carlos Holguin. While the US works slowly to propose rules that will ensure public safety, Citymobil2 is prepping to present a legal framework for driverless public transportation to this summer, Carlos Holguin, project manager at Citymobil2, told Tech Insider.
Citymobil2 has prioritized safety to ensure the European Commission adopts its proposal, drawing inspiration from railroads for its approach with driverless public transportation. He thinks it’s best to split roads into different “modules” and focus on making each individual module safe for driverless cars.
To make that vision a reality, Citymobil2 plans to place sensors in roads and create smart traffic light systems designed to better prevent collisions. “That kind of tech is simple compared to Google [cars], and we think it’s more comprehensive,” Holguin explained. He believes creating smart streets in conjunction with driverless cars is the safer way to go. “That way it’s not based just on what the vehicle sees from the sensors,” he said.
Holguin said he hopes that EU member countries will be able to adopt a legal framework soon to improve on an existing public transport system that is deficient in many areas. “The problem with public transportation today is lousy quality service,” he said. “These kind of systems would apply good quality transportation not possible with seated drivers.”
Despite such tech giants as Tesla, Google, and Apple working on self driving cars, and both Ford and General Motors focusing on autonomous vehicles, it might be small, nimble operations like WEpods and Citymobil2 that end up leading the way into a future where self driving vehicles become common sights on public roads.
Photo credits: WEpod; polisvideo/YouTube