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  • Writer's pictureGebler Tooth Architects

Connected & Autonomous Vehicles - Part 1

Updated: Mar 29, 2021

2020’s the PRT decade

By Peter Fennell, Operational Design Director

“Personal Rapid Transit has completed its pioneer decade securing its place in the capacity planning strategies of city and campus transit authorities, proving its availability, safety and operating cost promises and now launched into production of the first implementation phase schemes."

If these have come later than the pioneers themselves would have liked 10 years is not such a long time for a new paradigm to establish. The implementation decade ahead will demand a better understanding of what remains the least talked about and least understood aspect of PRT : the infrastructure integration challenge. What can and what cannot be done and what depends on development of additional technology and safety modules."

Peter Fennell shares his in-depth experience of the integration challenges from his development of several schemes at Heathrow with HAL and ULTra combining the roles of design team leader for development and integration of the infrastructure, lead on the User Experience workstream and following developments over 15 years.

Figure 1: Heathrow PRT

The pioneer decade

A decade ago beyond the factory floor CAV was called PRT. The development of connected and autonomous vehicles for carrying people had taken its key pioneer steps and was full of promise. 2010 saw full-featured PRT pilot schemes at Heathrow by ULTra (UK) and Masdar City in Abu Dhabi by 2GetThere (Netherlands) both passing live passenger trials with flying colours. Both were due for ambitious future expansion and enquiries flooded in from private campus applications like Microsoft and Google in US to public fare-charging urban schemes from Alabama to Amritsa in northern India. From steam in the 19th century to gas in the 20th to electric in the 21st transport technologies shape our cities and a decade is the blink-of-an-eye for a major new paradigm to become accepted but to the pioneers themselves the pause before the implementation phase or roll-out has seemed interminable.

Despite the serious intent of the enquiry schemes none has proceeded to production until now. That has a lot to do with the under-explored challenges of infrastructure integration - of which more to follow - but there was also another cause in the very success of the pilots. The technologies they pioneered were being picked up by the whole field of connected and autonomous transport and their success triggered a wave of interest and investment in autonomous vehicles. A few years into operation just as the PRT pilot schemes were proving their operating stability, availability, safety and cost promises they found themselves competing for public interest with the enthusiastic application of the same technologies in open road trials of otherwise standard road vehicles. Darpa[1]funded trials by Delphi and others were followed quickly by press releases from Tesla[2], Google[3], Apple[4] and Uber[5]. The promise of automation for private cars or that Level 5 autonomous vehicles would soon enter mixed traffic on highways and city streets created a great deal of excitement and speculation. Journalists, futurists, pundits and soothsayers had a great time on all sides of the argument but the commitment of seemingly all of Silicon Valley’s biggest names naturally put a question mark over any other transit future.

While PRT remained lighter, cheaper and less disruptive than urban light rail solutions like trams and monorails, what city mayor would confidently put his name to such a defining and indelible mark on his city if in 5 years time it might look like yesterday’s tech?

Robbert Lohmann of 2getthere comments of the period[6] that new technologies often have this ‘hype curve’ and what looked like being 5 years away in 2015, 5 years later looked no nearer. Indeed Apple and Google have stepped back and new names are carrying forward the development but with driver fatalities in 2016 and a pedestrian casualty in 2018 it looks further off still. It has also taken that time for appreciation to diffuse among the public and policy makers that the impressive steering, acceleration, braking and reading the environment in most situations – capabilities now called Level 3 automation – remain a long way from the capacity to decide unsupervised what to do in every situation.

With the hype subsided it has also become more obvious that full autonomy – independence from any outside entity – and deployment in mixed traffic are not the features with most to offer for the transport challenges of today. Real gains in capacity, energy efficiency and reducing journey times are to be found in the opposites: connectedness and bypassing other traffic. Hence now the most promising prospects on highways are seen to be in platooning long distance goods vehicles and for campus and last mile conditions recognition of the independent merits of PRT.

Figure 2: Masdar City Pod

[1] Darpa the US Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency founded 1958 funds research into emerging technologies with potential military applications. It funded a series of autonomous vehicle challenges 2004-7 Delphi (renamed Aptiv Plc 2017) is an automotive components developer founded 1994 now focused on cabling assemblies, controls and automation. Delphi acquired Ottomatika the CMU autonomy spin-off in 2015 and NuTonomy the equivalent MIT spin-off in 2017. Both received Darpa funding in the Grand Urban Challenge 2007. [2] Tesla V7 Autopilot was introduced in 2016. By 2019 Tesla claimed 130m miles navigated on autopilot but now say that billions of miles will be needed before full autonomous function will achieve sufficient reliability to be activated. [3] Google Self Driving Project launched 2009, renamed Waymo 2016 claimed 20m miles Jan 2020. Was issued a permit to operate fully driverless* in California October 2018. (*Level 4 autonomy = mind off but abort and park if in doubt). [4] Apple have been highly secretive about their driverless car project rumoured since 2014. Aug 2018 BBC reported they had 66 vehicles in testing. Jan 2019 the project was rumoured to be cancelled. June 2019 Apple acquired autonomous vehicle startup [5] Uber hired 50 people from the sector leading CMU (Carnegie Mellon University) Robotics Dept in 2015 to develop autonomous vehicles but had a rocky ride stopping the project for 6 months in 2018 after the death of a pedestrian for which they were found not culpable. [6]

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