The city-centres of Europe seem to be constantly growing and the demand for efficient and reliable transportation within the cities is increasing. The overcrowded public transport systems and the high pollution levels from cars and taxis have lead to the creation of CityMobil, the research project with the aim to modernise Europe's urban transport systems.
In La Rochelle, western France, the research director of INRIA, Michel Parent, takes a new prototype of theirs for a test-drive. The car is complete with lasers and movement sensors, automatic parking and speed controls. Infact, the car does not even have to be driven, the passenger simply uses the touch-screen to select a destination and the computer software takes care of the rest. The car can even be ordered with a phone call to pick up someone. Such a mode of transport could be particularly beneficial for the physically disabled.
There are various prototypes under development to ensure easier, cleaner and safer urban transport. One example from the Centro Ricerche FIAT in Italy has a radar installed at the front of the car to detect obstacles on the road. Onboard computers evaluate any obstacles for high-risk situations, like a pedestrian on the road, and signals the braking system to stop the car in time.
Many cities currently have a system for hiring public bikes, which has the problem that the bikes always accumalate at certain venues. So they have to be regularly redistributed around the town or city. The natural advantage of these autonomous prototypes is that they can drive themselves and automatically maintain an appropriate distribution within the city.
Unfortunately it is not enough to have the technology to produce urban vehicles that are safe, clean and autonomous; a major challenge will be integrating such vehicles into a transport infrastructure. According to Ahmed Benmimoun of the Citymobil project they are "in the process of evaluating which is the best way forward". Another possibility will be creating an infrastructure especially for autonomous vehicles, for example, a raised platform for driving on.
Autonomous vehicles have already been introduced to London's Heathrow Airport to improve traffic conditions. It has been estimated by the Airports Council International that 62-million passengers travelled via Heathrow Airport last year. A CityMobil vehicle, known as the ULTra Personal Rapid Transit prototype, has been installed to link car-parks with Terminal 5. The system is very user-friendly. Having selected a destination, the vehicle doors open alowing the passengers to board. Inside there is a button to close the doors and a button to start the journey. Screens on the ceiling and side panels display information such as the remaining travelling time. In case of any problems the vehicle is equipped with loudspeakers and microphones, with which passengers can communicate with the central control. There are also built-in closed-circuit TV cameras to increase the level of security and ease of communication. Under the surveillance of the central control, as many as 18 vehicles can travel along the 4 kilometre track, reaching speeds of up to 40 kilometres per hour. Asides from reducing traffic congestion on the roads, there will also be a reduction of pollution since the system is powered by electricity.
The vision of the CityMobil project is to establish similarly efficient and convenient transport systems, not just for Europe's busy airports but for all city centres and urbanised areas where people are constantly on the move.