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Cars without drivers – not science fiction

During the recent 'car-free' day in Brussels, an event organised each year in conjunction with European Mobility Week, members of the public got a chance to try out the latest 'cybercars' – small autonomous vehicles for public transport.

The CityNetMobil 'Cycab' in Brussels © Peter Gutierrez
The CityNetMobil 'Cycab' in Brussels
© Peter Gutierrez

CityNetMobilexternal link, launched in 2008 and coordinated by France's  INRIAexternal link, is aimed at raising awareness of automated 'Cybernetic Transport Systems' (CTS). Project partners hope to convince politicians, local mobility planners, and the general public that CTS can deliver more environmentally friendly and safer transport solutions.

The answer is automation

"'Cybercars' are small vehicles with autonomous driving capabilities for collective, semi-collective, and personal public transport," explains INRIA's Carlos Holguin. "They are ideally suited to providing feeder and shuttle services to connect, say, a parking lot with a terminal building, hospital, or a city centre."

Cybercars can provide taxi-like, door-to-door service for individuals or groups, between homes and main public transport lines, replacing large, slow, and infrequent suburban buses. When demand is low or pick-up points are far apart, cybercars are much more effective than conventional transport systems.

"The technologies for driverless cars have been available for 20 years, but they are still not well-known,” says Holguin. “What we need to do is remove the mental barrier from peoples’ minds. We want to show the public and the authorities how we could provide for individual mobility while eliminating conventional cars. For the public at large these types of vehicles are the stuff of science fiction, but the truth is they are very real and ready to go."

Are they safe?

The 'CyCab' on display in Brussels looks like a pumped up golf cart and riding in one feels like you are moving on rails – yet these are virtual rails. The vehicles can reach speeds of up to 40 km/h.

"A major advantage is that they don’t need any additional infrastructure," Holguin says. "These cybercars are operated automatically with state-of-the-art obstacle-avoidance technology. They will deliver the same level of safety as a conventional rail system, and that means excellent."

"Most accidents are caused by drivers, not by cars," he adds. "With no driver, there is nobody to fall asleep at the wheel, answer a phone call, or decide it’s safe to speed down a street where children are playing."

Coming to your town soon

Siim Kallas © Peter Gutierrez
Siim Kallas
© Peter Gutierrez

A number of pilot schemes using such vehicles are now up and running, including a shuttle bus in the suburbs of Rotterdam and at Heathrow airport in London. These schemes have demonstrated the potential of autonomous vehicles on dedicated road systems. The next step is to demonstrate their performance on open roads – something planned for next year in La Rochelle in France.

The demonstration in Brussels also coincided with the 'Move It' conference, where European Commission Vice-President Siim Kallas stated, "Traffic congestion is one of the most common complaints of our citizens in urban areas. But the Union is not here to impose solutions. The way forward, therefore, is to work together, all of us, the Commission, the Member States, our regions and our city authorities, along with the research community, to find the best possible mobility solutions."