Self-driving PODs to be trialled in Lake District national park

Self-driving PODs to be trialled in Lake District national park

Self-driving vehicles are being considered as part of a sustainable transport strategy for the UK’s Lake District.

Autonomous, electric POD vehicles from British motoring company Westfield are being brought to Brockhole on Windermere this week for a public test (see Internet of Business says, below, for times and contact details).

The Lake District is the first National Park and UNESCO World Heritage Site to take part in a feasibility study with the Westfield Technology Group. The aim is to explore technologies that will allow residents and visitors to access the area in an environmentally sustainable way, according to a joint announcement from Westfield and the Lake District.

POD’s progress

The AV division’s Pod on demand (POD) electric vehicles are already ferrying passengers at Heathrow Terminal 5, saving an average of 50,000 tons of carbon emissions every year, according to the company’s website.

Westfield also makes the popular sports cars, and is developing hybrid versions of the PODs alongside its all-electric models, it says.

The original POD technology was co-developed with Heathrow Airport, with all vehicles using the base platform that was created as part of the ULTra PRT (Personal Rapid Transit) project. One of Westfield’s other websites outlines the history of the relationship here.

PODs are also in use, or being trialled, at Birmingham and Manchester airports, the Greenwich O2 arena and transport hub, in Bristol city centre, and in several other locations, including parts of Beijing, says the company.

On-Demand transport

The PODs each have a range of up to 6.2 miles (10 km) and a maximum speed of 25mph, according to Westfield. The vehicles can be hailed on demand, and the 50+ vehicles currently in service, or being tested, have so far carried nearly four million passengers over 3.8 million miles.

All of this supports Westfield’s description of the PODs as first-mile/last mile transport options: they provide smart links over short distances and between other connected services, rather than offer the range and flexibility of a standard driverless car on the public highway, for example.

The fully customisable vehicles are built from off-the-shelf automotive industry components and run off automatically chargeable 48V lithium-ion batteries. Each POD can self-navigate and contains a range of sensors and collision-avoidance systems.

PODs can also be autonomously ‘platooned’ so that two or more vehicles follow each other in a controlled formation – effectively creating a POD train, but with no physical links between each car.

Each POD is wheelchair accessible and Westfield says it is developing new services for deaf, blind, and partially sighted passengers. Although there’s no driver, all passengers can speak to the vehicles’ control centre.

Environmental benefits

Richard Leafe, CEO of the Lake District National Park said: “We’re constantly looking at new ways to balance the needs and enjoyment of people as they visit and move around the Lake District, while being mindful of the impact on the environment.

“Driverless PODs are a really interesting concept, and while this is not necessarily something that will be seen on the Lake District’s streets soon, it’s vital that we explore a range of solutions to sustainable travel. We’re excited to see the PODs in action this week and to hear from the public about whether they would use this type of transport in the Lake District.”

Westfield Technology Group CEO Julian Turner added, “We’re really excited to be trialling the PODs in the Lake District, which is such a popular tourist destination in the UK.

“Through this project we’re identifying possible routes for the POD and talking to the local community about how we could meet their transport needs. This collaborative effort will allow us to create a sustainable and accessible transport mode for journeys in the future.

“We’re particularly looking forward to hearing feedback from local residents and visitors at Brockhole, as their input into how services can help meet their needs will be invaluable when planning possible routes for the POD to run in this area.”

Internet of Business says

A POD will be demonstrated on site at Brockhole on Windermere, on Friday 27 April between 1pm and 4pm, and on Saturday 28 April, between 10am and 4pm, with participants seeking public feedback from the tests. For information about the test, please contact the Communications team at the Lake District National Park on (UK) 01539 724555, this week only.

The outcomes of the feasibility study, due to end in June, will inform decisions about whether this type of transport would be suitable for the Lake District, and which routes might be viable.

Overall, this is a smart, sustainable solution that has already proved with tourists. It also has the benefit of being a futuristic addition at popular hubs, creating a positive impression for visitors.

Whether standalone, site-specific solutions like this will be a long-term strategy is a tougher question to answer, however.

At airports, shopping centres, and other hotspots, the technology works and is accessible to all as a ‘location extension’ – perhaps even as an attraction in itself. But as driverless, on-demand electric vehicles spread and become part of an integrated, frictionless transport network, the need for site-specific solutions may reduce in the long run – at least on the public highways.

But Westfield should be congratulated for being part of the evolving solution for smart, sustainable, accessible transport, and for its success as an independent, diverse British maker, which also provides a range of other technologies, including graphene supercapacitors, metallic microlattices, biocomposites, and mobile air quality monitoring.

Chris Middleton
Chris Middleton is the editor of Internet of Business, and specialises in robotics, AI, the IoT, blockchain, and technology strategy. He is former editor of Computing, Computer Business Review, and Professional Outsourcing, among others, and is a contributing editor to Diginomica, Computing, and Hack & Craft News. Over the years, he has also written for Computer Weekly, The Guardian, The Times, PC World, I-CIO, V3, The Inquirer, and Blockchain News, among many others. He is an acknowledged robotics expert who has appeared on BBC TV and radio, ITN, and Talk Radio, and is probably the only tech journalist in the UK to own a number of humanoid robots, which he hires out to events, exhibitions, universities, and schools. Chris has also chaired conferences on robotics, AI, digital marketing, and space exploration, and spoken at numerous other events.