In October, the largest self-driving car project backed by the British government wrapped up three years worth of testing aimed at getting autonomous vehicles onto roads by 2021. Many of the autonomous car and pod tests took place in Milton Keynes, a town built for cars that represents one of the fastest-growing city or town economies in the United Kingdom.
Originally founded as a new “model town” in 1967, Milton Keynes is a city in all but name after having grown to 280,000 people in 50 years. But the same economic success means that Milton Keynes—built in a grid layout and suburban style—faces a number of growing pains that it’s looking to ease with the help of autonomous vehicle technology. The recent UK Autodrive tests were designed to test the capabilities of both self-driving cars and smaller autonomous pod vehicles made by Coventry, UK-based Aurrigo, a division of RDM Group, with an eye toward easing traffic congestion and possibly even eliminating the need for cars in the city center.
“We recognize the technology is in its infancy,” says Brian Matthews, Head of Transport Innovation for the Milton Keynes Council in the UK. “It’s not fully capable in terms of mimicking what humans could do in driving cars, but it’s very close.”
In the next few decades, the growing town will likely need to accommodate double or triple the amount of cars on its roads today—something that can’t realistically be met by simply “building loads of car parks,” Matthews says. The community’s changing demographics and growing elderly population could also benefit from self-driving vehicles to provide mobility to people who cannot or do not want to drive. So the Milton Keynes Council worked with technologists to develop a set of use cases tailored to the community’s problems that could be demonstrated within a three-year program.
Some UK Autodrive trials tested connected and autonomous vehicle (CAV) technologies that could help more cars use the existing highway and roundabout system without increasing congestion or requiring new construction. One intersection collision warning test focused on seeing if a car equipped with CAV technology could merge onto highways more safely than human drivers. Another trial successfully showed how smarter cars could potentially avoid traffic-snarling highway crashes by receiving early warning about braking actions 10 cars ahead in congested lanes.
October 2018 demo of UK Autodrive, showing a Ford connected vehicle demonstrating Green Light Optimal Speed Advisory (GLOSA) in Coventry. Photo: UK Autodrive
A third trial examined whether CAV technologies could help vehicles operate more closely together when driving around within the more than 130 roundabout intersections of Milton Keynes. The technology was not quite there yet, but could someday increase by 20 percent the number of cars that such roundabouts could handle, Matthews says. Additional testing took place on Coventry’s infamously complex ring road.
Such tests used more autonomous versions of passenger cars from companies such as Jaguar Land Rover, Ford Motor Company and Tata Motors European Technical Centre. But the Autodrive tests in Milton Keynes also included electric-powered pods developed by Aurrigo operating in the more pedestrian-focused areas of the town.
Yet another demonstration showed how such pods could serve as last-mile connection options that carry passengers from a self-driving car drop-off point to the Milton Keynes railway station in the heart of the town. That could someday allow planners to ban cars from operating in the Central Business District and other parts of the city center. And the land area that is currently taken up by more than 20,000 parking spaces in the city center could be repurposed for business, leisure and retail development.
“We might want cars to drop off people at the edge of the city, and then take a pod or walk or cycle,” Matthews says.
City planners enlisted Cambridge University researchers to help update their computer models for projecting the possible impacts of adopting autonomous vehicles within the next 20 to 30 years. That far-out view could help Milton Keynes begin considering the different infrastructure development choices they could make to both take advantage of the benefits from autonomous vehicles and to accommodate their presence.
For example, new electric charging stations and communications infrastructure would likely be required to support both the pods and self-driving cars. Milton Keynes is already upgrading its Urban Traffic Management Center to give it the ability to manage and control large numbers of autonomous vehicles.
But the autonomous vehicle technologies still have a ways to go before they can fully deliver on their promised benefits. One main limitation of the self-driving cars was that their driving behavior remained cautious—not unlike that of a novice driver who has just passed the driving test—something that may cause problems if larger numbers of self-driving cars join human drivers on the roads.
“We know cautious drivers may not mix well with aggressive drivers who have been driving for many years,” Matthews says. “The research we did around the forecasting and modeling suggest that the benefits set to come from CAVs will only be realized when we move their capability from a new driver to an experienced driver.”
The city planners also want to boost the electric pods from their current max speed of 5 miles per hour to about 10 miles per hour, or approximately double the average human walking speed. The pods are currently designed to get out of the way of pedestrians or come to a stop if their way is blocked. They also use a humming noise to help alert pedestrians to their presence.
Milton Keynes and the UK Autodrive planners seem to have gone out of their way to bring local residents and specific stakeholder groups to the table. They consulted with disability groups about possible concerns for people who are visually or hearing impaired and might come into contact with the autonomous pods. General public opinion also seemed to welcome the Autodrive demonstrations given the fact that the tests created relatively little inconvenience for residents, Matthews says.
“The demonstrations were live, but there were not too many specific things we had to do,” Matthews says. “We didn’t close roads and didn’t stop people from doing what they normally did on the road network.”
The city council has already submitted an application to the UK government for a follow-up project that would operate until the end of 2020 or early 2021. In this next stage, the local government is specifically seeking projects capable of delivering a commercially viable end product that could transport either cargo or people. Milton Keynes expects to hear whether its proposal gets the green light by the end of the calendar year.
Jeremy Hsu has been working as a science and technology journalist in New York City since 2008. He has written on subjects as diverse as supercomputing and wearable electronics for IEEE Spectrum. When he’s not trying to wrap his head around the latest quantum computing news for Spectrum, he also contributes to a variety of publications such as Scientific American, Discover, Popular Science, and others. He is a graduate of New York University’s Science, Health & Environmental Reporting Program.