INTERVIEW: Coordinator of Europe’s largest self-driving vehicle project cautions that a rush to automation could have downsides

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It’s easy to get carried away with visions of a driverless-vehicle Utopia – an emission-free pod picks you up from your front door at the touch of a button and whisks you quickly and safely to your destination, while you relax or work in its comfortable interior. But Adriano Alessandrini (left), project coordinator for CityMobil2, Europe’s largest automated vehicle project, has a more cautious vision of our autonomous future.

CityMobil2 autonomous ‘people movers’, such as those pictured below, are being tested in locations across Europe. Such systems are deemed likely to play a useful role in the transport mix as they can supply a good transport service (individual or collective) in areas of low or dispersed demand, complementing the main public transport network. While Alessandrini believes there will be many positive benefits of deploying automated passenger transport, he doesn’t realistically expect there to be large-scale deployment overnight. And, regarding passenger cars, encourages proceeding cautiously as the impacts of fully automated cars could turn out to be detrimental for cities – for example, they may increase total vehicle miles traveled. He also thinks that the first generation of such vehicles on a smaller scale should also be ‘connected’, as well as autonomous, for safety reasons.

Do you see a continent-wide autonomous-friendly connected road-network in the next few years?

No. Automation is not the solution to everything. If automated highways were to lead to a shift from rail to road, the result would be more congestion and pollution and an uncertain effect on safety. Automated road transport systems will need to remain (at least at first) last mile solutions to complement existing collective transport, thereby helping them to improve service quality and financial viability.

Do you see fully autonomous vehicles on roads outside of controlled environments anytime soon?

CityMobil2 is not dealing with [fully]autonomous vehicles (i.e vehicles without connectivity to the infrastructure) but rather connected automation (i.e vehicles that have both on-board technology – sensors, lasers and maps for obstacle detection and positioning – as well as wireless connection to the infrastructure for positioning and for communicating with traffic lights). Within the next decade, it is very plausible to see fully automated, CityMobil2-type vehicles operating on public roads (provided the legal framework is there) on a small-scale and in very specific environments, eg, low traffic density roads.

Whether it is for low- or high-speed operations we strongly encourage (for safety’s sake) the certification of the infrastructures alongside the vehicles and the control system. To ensure a safe automation environment, the infrastructure (and its use) needs to be well thought through.

What legislative or other legal/insurance impediments remain and how will they be overcome?

The main legal barrier of drivers being ‘written’ into the national road codes remains. Three European countries (Greece, Finland and the Netherlands) have progressed to allow (even if only for temporary operations) driverless vehicles on the road. Other countries require an operator on board. This remains an important obstacle to the deployment of CityMobil2-like systems which otherwise are nearly ready for the market.

Insurance was a big barrier at the beginning of the project but surprisingly has since turned into a huge driver. Insurance companies are increasingly pushing for these technologies and are ready to invest in trials and to give discounts on premiums in case of automated operations pre-certified for safety. Zurich insurance company recently joined the CityMobil2 consortium, helping the project to solve insurance issues in all demonstrations.

Tell us a bit more about the CityMobil2 autonomous project

The vehicles operating at the various CityMobil2 demonstration sites have a maximum capacity of 10 passengers. I don’t think this constitutes mass transit (ie, of the tram, metro, bus type). However, CityMobil2 is dealing with collective passenger transport as opposed to passenger cars. It is for this reason that we have many local authorities involved directly and indirectly in the project. Furthermore, the CityMobil2 ARTS (Automated Road Transport Systems) are designed for last mile trips to complement mass transit, thereby offering a door-to-door trip.

The first CityMobil project dealt with a wider range of vehicles, including a bus, which was demonstrated (and continues to operate I believe) in the Spanish city of Castellon. This bus operated in automated mode on certain segregated stretches of the bus route.

What is your interest in in-city autonomous commercial traffic, or even inter-city autonomous freight carriage? Are they feasible?

CityMobil2 is only dealing with passenger transport. Nonetheless, it is conducting a long-term forecasting study in which freight issues are addressed; even if it is premature to give conclusions, it would seem that coupling last mile freight delivery (especially for e-commerce deliveries) with last mile passenger transport may give automated transport the commercial viability it’s missing today. The first CityMobil project addressed freight to a greater extent.

Which cities to date have signed up and which others have shown interest?

The demonstration cities are Oristano (Italy), La Rochelle (France), Vantaa (Finland), Trikala (Greece) and the Sophia Antipolis conurbation (France). The cities hosting a showcase of automated vehicles (ie, 3-5 day trials) are Leon and San Sebastian (both in Spain). The two other city partners of the project are Brussels and Milan.

In addition, there are a number of other cities that are associated with the project through the CityMobil2 Reference Group: Barcelona (Spain), London (UK), the three UK pilot projects (Milton Keynes, Bristol and Greenwich), Tampere (Finland), Aarhus (Denmark) and Helmond (the Netherlands). There are also some public transport authority/operators (EMT/Madrid, Tisseo/Toulouse, De Lijn/Flanders and CPT/UK). The Transport Systems Catapult (UK) is also a member of the Reference Group.

Which manufacturers have signed up and how do they differ in their approach?

The project started with the six existing manufacturers in Europe. ARTS manufacturers are typically very small companies operating in a limited market and therefore they tend to have cash flow problems, which is why the support of research and demonstration projects is so important for them. At present, the two manufacturers we are using in the project are Robosoft and EasyMile (the new joint-venture between Robosoft itself and Ligier).

Technology wise, we have given technical specifications in terms of the performance to be achieved from guidance, obstacle detection and supervision systems without indicating any preferential technological choice. However, we picked manufacturers offering similar technologies based on integrated D-GPS and SLAM for navigation and laser for obstacle detection.

How are these cities/manufacturers interacting with one another through the project and separately?

All manufacturers participated in the definition of the minimum technical specifications for ARTS and the cities participated in defining their local needs in terms of transport. They interact directly or indirectly at project gatherings. One of the main project achievements so far is to have defined a procedure to safely integrate automated road transport systems in any urban environment.

The call for papers of the Autonomous Vehicle Test & Development Symposium 2016 is now open. Don’t miss out on your chance to be involved with the only conference dedicated to the testing and development of autonomous vehicles. The event will take place in Stuttgart from May 31 – June 2. For more information click here

Photograph above: © Frédéric Le Lan – Communauté d’Agglomération de La Rochelle

August 13, 2015 

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Tom has edited Traffic Technology International magazine and the Traffic Technology Today website since he joined the company in May 2014. Prior to this he worked on some of the UK's leading consumer magazine titles including Men's Health and Glamour, beginning his career in journalism in 1997 after graduating with a law degree from the London School of Economics (LSE).

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