The media focus on autonomous vehicles has been on whether they can take over from human drivers on public roads. It’s the thing that would touch most people and catches the imagination, but as I discovered writing about the subject for Computer Weekly, it’s going to take a lot of work.
However, autonomous vehicles are already being successfully used off-road, in places such as mines, distribution centres and fields. Volvo Group has put a driverless truck down a Swedish mine and put its chief technology officer in front of the truck, fortunately without messy results.
Semi-autonomous tractors are already a reality – if you look into the cab of agricultural vehicle you’ll see how sophisticated they are – and Milton Keynes Council reckons it can start running autonomous vehicles as taxis between transport hubs to city centre locations in about a year’s time.
Milton Keynes is also offering itself as a test-bed for autonomous vehicles – those wide, straight roads with separate routes for pedestrians and bikes make it ideal. As Geoff Snelson, the council’s director of strategy, told me with a nice bit of understatement: “It’s a little bit more straightforward than trying to run things in the middle of Oxford.”
Which is why the University of Oxford was last month running public trials of autonomous vehicles in… Milton Keynes. Who could resist?