Driverless vehicles are coming to London in July

Brace yourselves for the "who's driving this thing?" jokes

If you’ve been to Heathrow Airport in the last five years, you probably recognise these automated pods that are used to efficiently shuttle passengers across the sprawling airport. To date they’ve successfully carried 1.5 million passengers to and from their destinations, and now they’re being adapted to operate further afield without the need for tracks.

In July 2016, several of these pods will take to the streets of Greenwich to be trialled as part of the £8 million GATEway Project, which aims to develop an understanding of the safety, technical, legal and societal implications of using automated vehicles in urban environments through a series of trials.

There are three companies involved in adapting the pods to make them more suitable for use in residential areas without tracks. Westfield Sportscars will design, manufacture and safety test the pods, Heathrow enterprises will design their software, and Oxbotica will develop mapping software and sensors to ensure the safety of those outside the vehicles as well as inside them. Oxbotica will also develop a cloud-based management that should enable the pod system to have features like smartphone booking applications and easy monitoring of the vehicles.

For the first three months of the project, use of the pods will be by invite only, after which they will be open for use to the general public, able to hold up to six people, one of whom will be a steward manning the emergency stop button for safety purposes, and probably to act as a reassuring presence for those feeling more hesitant towards being inside a driverless vehicle.

Greenwich will be the first of four areas in the UK to host trials, with others taking place in Bristol, Coventry, and Milton Keynes later in the year.

This is a pretty exciting development in automated vehicle tech which points towards the possibility of more environmentally friendly public transport; according to Steve Chambers, Director of Engineering and Asset Management at Heathrow, the pods in use at Heathrow’s Terminal 5 have already cut 70,000 bus journeys a year from the roads at the airport “and the equivalent of 100 tonnes of CO2 a year.” Considering they’ve only been in use in one part of the airport for a relatively short period of time these are some admirable figures. If the trials find that the public react positively to having automated vehicles in their midst it could result in a large increase in investment for this exciting area of technology.

There’s an official website for the GATEway Project coming soon where more information about the trials will be revealed. Right now you can sign up to be notified when the website goes live.

Main Image: TRL