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February 1, 2023
A new self-driving bus trial will kick off in Cambridge next year – though safety drivers will remain on board.
The trial, called the Cambridge Connector project, will run next year and involve up to 13 automated electric vehicles serving routes around the city, backed by £8.7 million from government which is being matched by ‘industry’ of some description.
The ‘on-demand’ self-driving shuttle service will run around Cambridge University’s West Cambridge Campus and the Cambridge Biomedical Campus, and the robo-busses will initially have a ‘safety driver’ on board as backup, but will eventually be monitored remotely instead.
We’re told in the release that forecasts predict that 40% of new UK car sales will have self-driving capabilities by 2035, which will represent a total market value for ‘connected and automated mobility’ worth £41.7 billion to the economy.
“In just a few years’ time, the business of self-driving vehicles could add tens of billions to our economy and create tens of thousands of jobs across the UK,” said Business Secretary Grant Shapps. This is a massive opportunity to drive forward our priority to grow the economy, which we are determined to seize. The support we are providing today will help our transport and technology pioneers steal a march on the global competition, by turning their bright ideas into market-ready products sooner than anyone else.”
Cllr Elisa Meschini, Chair of the Greater Cambridge Partnership’s Executive Board, added: “In the last two years we have trialled autonomous vehicles and now these innovative self-driving vehicles are the next step to demonstrate how on-demand services will be part of the future for Greater Cambridge.
“People have told us how important better and more reliable public transport is, and these new autonomous vehicles, which will be seen next year, could help to transform the way thousands of people travel in and around Greater Cambridge every day to help cut congestion and give people another alternative to travelling by car.”
It does seem a bit pointless to go to the bother of building out the infrastructure and vehicles that make autonomous driving possible only to require ‘safety drivers’ to be on board, who could just as well drive the thing, or have someone monitoring it remotely. There doesn’t seem to be any labour being saved unless that person is monitoring multiple vehicles, which doesn’t seem like the best idea either if they’re supposed to be looking out for potential accidents. But of course it’s a trial, so they can’t just launch the things out of the garage and see if they cause a pile up or not.
The tech and telco industry has been banging on about autonomous vehicles for years, and aside from a few extremely controlled trials like this one, we don’t seem to be making leaps and bounds towards the ‘Johnny Cab’ from Total Recall version of a totally autonomous, self sufficient car ride.
At CES this year there seemed to be a bit of a reframing of what the cutting-edge car is. The parade of teched up car concepts which were wheeled out in previous shows usually were all about 5G enabled autonomous driving – this year we started hearing the term ‘software defined vehicle’ and there appeared to be less emphasis on self-driving and more on things like instant colour customisation, which conceptually is less of a thing to get excited about however flashy it looks.
For the architects of the smart city and auto-tech visionaries, perhaps it’s looking a bit harder than they envisaged to actually implement proper self-driving out in the wild, and so they are rustling up different hooks to convince the world of the need for ever more teched up and connected motors.
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