A fully autonomous passenger shuttle service begins trials on UK roads today, Science Minister George Freeman has announced.
The new service is being trialled by Darwin Innovation Group, with support from ESA and the UK Space Agency. An autonomous shuttle by the French Company Navya will transport passengers around Harwell Science and Innovation Campus in Oxfordshire.
The shuttle uses LiDAR sensors, cameras and ultrasound sensors to navigate safely around any obstacles. It also features a satellite (GNSS) antenna for positioning. There is no steering wheel, but it does have safety controls, which will be managed by an on-board operator throughout the trial.
Darwin will maintain and monitor the service, tracking the shuttle’s location and gathering information about its operation as it travels. Telematics data will be transmitted from the shuttle in real time using Hispasat’s satellite communication channels and O2’s 4G and 5G networks.
The use of satellite communications in this trial is significant. In previous trials, autonomous vehicles have relied on terrestrial Wi-Fi to stay connected. By making use of satellites in addition to 4G and 5G, autonomous vehicles can operate even in rural or remote areas that may not yet have complete terrestrial coverage.
This shuttle service will help demonstrate the potential of self-driving vehicles to operate in a real-world setting, serving as a step towards the wider use of this technology in the UK. Similar Navya shuttles have been used in an urban setting in Switzerland and have safely transported tens of thousands of passengers.
The shuttle, which is battery powered, shows that the future of public transportation can be green as well as autonomous. The potential to transport passengers while emitting zero carbon, if put in place more widely, could help the UK towards its emission targets.
Science Minister George Freeman said: “Until now autonomous vehicles have relied on terrestrial Wi-Fi, which means they can struggle to operate in remote and rural areas. By unlocking the power of space and satellite technology, these shuttles can stay connected all the time.