Every day, Europe's urban streets are clogged by excessive traffic and blocked by accidents, road-works and other hazards. It is little wonder that 90 percent of Europeans think that traffic congestion in their cities and neighbourhoods needs to be improved.
© Fotolia, 2012
At London's Heathrow Airport, a glimpse of the transport systems of the future is coming into view while also demonstrating the fruits of Europe wide technological cooperation.
Marking a world's first for automated travel, "pods" shuttle travellers between a car park and Terminal 5 along a dedicated path without the need of a driver or petrol. Installed in April 2011, these battery-powered vehicles rendered obsolete the two diesel-propelled buses that looped around the airport all day long regardless of how many passengers were on board. The pods, however, only run when summoned by passengers, saving fuel and reducing pollution.
The pods travel up to 35 km per hour quietly, comfortably and at the push of a button following pavement lines with optical navigation. Eventually, these "ULTra" pods could form a network of automated cars connecting Heathrow and other European airports to transport hubs, city centres and other central points.
Heathrow's automated "cybercars" are the centrepiece of the EU-funded research project, CityMobil. Drawing together experts and expertise in a truly European scientific effort, CityMobil's unique team of researchers has worked to develop entirely new forms of urban transportation. The idea is to replace conventional cars and buses with vehicles that passengers can use on-demand, and semi-automatic buses that can use both overhead tram wires and internal combustion engines.
"We have shown that these vehicles are technically feasible," said Suzanne Hoadley of the Brussels-based policy organisation Polis, one of CityMobil's 29 partners. "In the coming years, we expect to see a steady increase in the number of these systems being installed in Europe."
To widen the potential, CityMobil researchers have worked to create an ongoing research-and-development programme to engage more scientists and stimulate more innovation, lower the administrative barriers to automated vehicles, advise government officials on how they can benefit from new forms of transport, and publicise the results of their work to the broader scientific and transport communities. They are also working to increase public acceptance of revolutionary technologies, which may become commonplace in the future.
The commercial possibilities are immense, which could create a true niche market to bring economic development, technological innovations and jobs to Europe. CityMobil is already drawing interest from city and airport officials throughout Europe and the US.
In addition to the Heathrow pods, CityMobil installed hybrid buses in the scenic, oceanside city of Castellón, Spain. Following a route that links a university with a park in the city centre, bus drivers could use the self-guiding system to supervise the route and only use the steering wheel in an emergency. CityMobil was also put on display in Finland, France, Italy, Norway and the UK, where the public could ride in cybercars and other advanced vehicles.
CityMobil researchers envisage a person being able to summon a cybercar to their home or a bus stop, push a button corresponding to their destination, and be driven automatically along the quickest route a personalised taxi with no driver to get lost or cause an accident.
These automated pods are cheaper than high-speed rail, making them attractive to budget-tightening governments. They use half the energy of buses and one-fourth that of cars. Eventually they could be used on regular roads. Such a system would be ideal for the elderly, the disabled, and people without driver's licenses.
Led by the Netherlands Organisation for Applied Scientific Research, CityMobil received 11 million euros in support from the European Commission's Sixth Framework Programme for Research and Technological Development. The continuing initiative, which wound up its EU-funded work in December 2011, united government agencies, transport planners and manufacturers, universities and research institutes from 11 European countries.