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Driverless cars to unclog traffic

Aug. 9, 2006
Courtesy SINTEF
and World Science staff

Imagine you drive to London’s giant Heathrow airport and park there, in preparation for a trip. 

But don’t think of lugging your bags to a far-off terminal, or waiting for a bus. Instead, you call up an automated, driverless vehicle that picks you up and shepherds you to the terminal.

A demonstration model of a driverless "cybercar." (Courtesy SINTEF)

This scenario will be reality within five years—and the technology won’t be confined to such limited areas as the airport for long, researchers say. 

If European Union authorities have their way, similar vehicles will soon be zipping around major cities, possibly moving on tracks or defined corridors, as part of a quest to reduce traffic and pollution.

Heathrow is just one testing site.

“This may sound like pure science fiction,” said Torgeir Vaa of the Foundation for Scientific and Industrial Research at the Norwegian Institute of Technology (SINTEF), a research group based in Trondheim, Norway.

“But the technology already exists,” and demonstrations and pilot studies have been carried out, added Vaa, a senior scientist at the foundation. The organization is part of a new European Union project called CityMobil, which promises to invest 40 million euros to streamline city transport continent-wide.

“In the future that we are talking about, private cars will have to park at the city limits, and other systems will take over in the center,” he said. These, he added, would include rapid public transport and “personal transportation” for short distances.

Heathrow, a new exhibition centre in Rome and the Spanish city of Castellón have been picked as demonstration sites. Within five years, if plans hold up, these sites will have installed fully developed automated transport systems, and the first results will have been evaluated.

Castellón would adopt “bimodal” vehicles able to run both manually and automatically depending on the place, Vaa said. In Rome, a fleet of automated “cybercars” would ferry people between a parking area, a railway station and the exhibition centre. In Heathrow, automated vehicles running on tracks would carry passengers between the terminal and the car park.

CityMobil follows up on an earlier EU project called Stardust, which built demonstration vehicles with technology known as Advanced Driver Assistance Systems, or ADAS. Such systems prevent a driver from exceeding speed limits by making the accelerator pedal “heavy,” or ensure that cars keep a safe distance from the vehicle ahead.

But the driverless technologies present new safety concerns that developers will have to sort out, Vaa added.

Imagine again that you arrive at Heathrow, and call the driverless unit. It comes to you, but “what about other people who are standing at the same parking place?” Vaa asked. “Who would be responsible in the event of an accident?” 

Trondheim has been chosen as one of 15 European cities that will submit relevant problems to CityMobil and test out solutions. 

Rome, Castellón and Heathrow are the chief demonstration sites, Vaa said; but other cities will also host small-scale demonstrations, depending on how actively they participate. “We hope to have the new transport solutions demonstrated in Trondheim and perhaps in other Norwegian cities,” he said. The CityMobil project involves 28 partner organizations in 10 countries.

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