Meridian driverless shuttles
February 20, 2015

UK tests driverless shuttles in public

Brett Smith for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online

We may not get flying cars in 2015 like Back to the Future said we would, but driverless cars on the road appears to be a reality drawing close.

The latest driverless car comes out of the United Kingdom in the form of a modest 10-passenger shuttle bus called Meridian, which began public testing this week.

A gateway bus

Slightly bigger than a golf cart, with a maximum speed of 13 mph and a battery life of 60 miles, the Meridian was created for short routes in urban areas and is a part of the Greenwich Automated Transport Environment (GATEway) project, one of three driverless vehicle UK pilot programs.

The vehicle uses state-of-the-art sensors to chart their urban ecosystem and steer clear of collisions as they drive. They're capable of scanning as far as 210 yards ahead, 25 times per second. The scans are used to determine the size, speed, and distance of every object in range.

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The Meridian is currently being tested without passengers on basic routes to not only test the system itself, but also measure the reactions of passers-by when they approach a driverless shuttle. We imagine it's like this:

jurassic park

Alan Grant watches the T. Rex chase a flare in "Jurassic Park". (Credit: MOVIECLIPS/YouTube)

The shuttle’s design team is also currently involved in the many, many legal and insurance matters related to automated public transport.

All part of a bigger plan

Back in August, the UK announced plans to allow driverless cars on Britain’s public roads.

Plans included asking cities across the country to bid to become one of the hosts for trials of the new technology. Japan has already tested driverless cars and Nevada, Florida, California and the US governments have all green-lit road tests.

[STORY: Uber now researching self-driving vehicles]

UK Business Secretary Vince Cable announced the plan at a research facility belonging to Mira, an automotive engineering firm based in England.

"Today's announcement will see driverless cars take to our streets in less than six months, putting us at the forefront of this transformational technology and opening up new opportunities for our economy and society," he said.

Tests are slated to take place over 18 to 36 months. However, before the new vehicles can be used, existing traffic laws and insurance rules need to be reviewed. Even though many features of today’s standard vehicles are already automated, a totally driverless car will see the majority of the control of principal functions carried out by the car’s on-board computer systems.

Reliant upon two technologies

Driverless cars are essentially two primary advances in technology. Firstly, driverless cars must “see”, and their “eyes” are supplied by a computer vision system. The second advancement is Lidar, or “light detection and ranging” which uses laser technology to recognize items around the vehicle.

Up to now, driverless cars maintained traditional controls, such as steering wheels and brakes which allowed a human driver to take over if necessary. However, newer models remove those elements, with Google’s latest car being completely without pedals and a steering wheel.

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Road safety concerns are still a major hurdle. For example, the FBI has talked about possible misuse of the technology by criminals, an indication that the technology is currently way in front of the law. Despite the fact that its supporters say autonomous vehicles might be safer than human drivers, there is currently a fight to gain the confidence of the public.

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