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OPINION: What's it like to travel in a fully autonomous shuttle?

Date: 07 April 2017   |   Author: Daniel Puddicombe

In the early days of motoring, new-fangled horseless carriages were required to have a man walk in front of them with a large red flag warning of their presence.

Fast-forward more than a hundred years and there is a similar system in place in Greenwich, south east London, where 'Harry', an autonomous shuttle is being trialed by members of the public as part of the £8m Government-backed Gateway project to help develop driverless vehicles.

Rather than a man with a red flag, 'Harry' - people involved in the project have a habit of referring to the shuttle like a person - is flanked by three hi-viz-wearing cyclists, checking up on his - sorry, its - progress as we bumble along a pre-set route.

Unlike other driverless car projects, which tend to be tested well out of sight of the public, 'Harry' is tackling a varied route, which includes cobbles, narrow streets and the busy Greenwich peninsula, which is packed with people going about their daily business and the odd person who spots a driverless vehicle and thinks it'll be a good idea to jump in front of it.

The busy environment allows the company developing the shuttle, Oxbotica, to see how the shuttle reacts to the public, while I took part in a Royal College of Art study to gauge the public's perception of driverless vehicles.

Apparently, 5,000 people signed up for the 56 places on offer to have a ride in 'Harry' and there was an air of curiosity as we meandered our way around Greenwich.

And you know what? Travelling in a vehicle which can drive itself is a fairly normal affair when you forget you're in this oddly shaped shuttle that garners more attention than the latest Ferrari.

However, once you get used to being driven by a robot, a few things become very apparent. The ride quality, for one, is very jittery, with the shuttle squirreling and bouncing around on what was a fairly smooth road, cobbled section notwithstanding, and it was fairly loud for an electric vehicle too.

 My biggest gripe though, was that it is quite hard to see out of - the central section is blacked out and you're forced to look out of tiny, boat-like portholes.

Real-world conditions allow you to experience things you wouldn't ever see on a test track, though.  Rounding a tight bend, the anchors were dropped because a small child had run out in front of the vehicle with a football - an event that proves the technology certainly does work when it has to.

I was also told that earlier in the day, a parked dumper truck disrupted proceedings as Harry didn't know what to do.

Harry wasn't left to his/its own devices - as well as myself and two others, a supervisor was onboard, who could take control if required, and would tell the shuttle to move off when the coast is clear.

So it isn't fully autonomous yet, and there are still problems that need to be ironed out - at times, it swerved quite violently for no apparent reason, and we sometimes stopped for pedestrians which weren't in the way - but the more it is tested, the more the technology will improve.

"Driverless cars are quite boring when they work" the supervisor told me, summing up the experience perfectly - once the novelty wears off, getting into an autonomous shuttle will be just like going on the DLR or jumping on a bus. Hopefully by then, kids with footballs won't run out into the path of oncoming shuttles either.



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