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Driverless Heathrow pods demonstrate the unimaginable

London Heathrow airport has recently introduced driverless pods to connect Terminal 5 with its car parks, replacing a regular bus service. A hit with travellers and techies alike, these pods are being introduced on the road with support from the European Commission’s Framework Programme for research.

Europe’s transport system is getting increasingly congested, and it is important to preserve our mobility without sacrificing our quality of life. This is why the European Commission has dedicated € 11 million to the Citymobil project, which is developing completely automated city transport systems like the one in Heathrow. By using new intelligent transport technologies and clean fuels, urban vehicles can be made quieter, cleaner and even capable of moving on demand without a driver.

The Heathrow pods are one of the very first commercial applications of a driverless vehicle on the road (two other such projects can be found in the Netherlands and in Abu Dhabi, UAR). The reason for the rarity of these comfortable vehicles, according to the Citymobil researchers, is not a lack of technology, but rather 'a lack of imagination'. One of their main research findings is that sceptical citizens, as well as financial and regulatory hurdles, are giving many European cities cold feet to adopt new solutions.

To change this situation, Citymobil is running demonstrator projects in several European cities, mapping obstacles and developing a detailed protocol for evaluation. Project coordinator Jan van Dijke is convinced that it would be hard to find a better team than this diverse and truly European one, made up of 29 partners: ‘With operators, governments and technical specialists all aboard, the Citymobil evaluation protocol was designed to include just the right questions to get a good view of the experience of passengers, but also of those installing the system and anyone else involved.’ This type of joint expertise and wide range of perspectives is not easily found elsewhere and Mr Van Dijke considers Europe the continent best suited to making progress in urban mobility.

London Heathrow airport’s infrastructure resembles a city in many respects, so outcomes of extensive testing carried out by Citymobil can be extrapolated to understand more about the conditions for successful implementation. Since driverless pods are also significantly cheaper than high-speed railor monorail, they are commercially attractive. Several airports and urban areas in the United States have already shown interest. This may eventually result in European growth and jobs in a niche of the market that has not previously been explored and create more comfortable urban areas. Meanwhile, the Citymobil team are eager to continue their demonstration projects to show Europeans the unimaginable.