As technology companies and automakers race to put a driverless car on the road, they might want to take a look at a small experiment being conducted in the Netherlands. WEpods, an abbreviation of Wageningen and Ede, two towns in the south-central province of Gelderland, will soon play host to a driverless bus system, ferrying dignitaries and visitors to a local university via six-passenger vehicles that look a bit like enclosed, oversized golf carts. Unlike similar autonomous transport systems currently in use, such as the Rotterdam Rivium bus or Heathrow airport shuttles, these electrically powered vehicles won’t run on dedicated tracks, instead rolling on the same roadways used by human drivers.
"It’s very strange to trust a robot to drive you from one place to another," says project manager Alwin Bakker.
After two months of test runs down a 200-meter stretch of public road, the system will start transporting human passengers in May. Designed, tested, approved, and road-ready in a little less than two years, the WEpods system, which cost the local government 3.4 million Euros ($3.8 million) for a pair of autonomous vehicles, seems like a deal. According to Bakker, the government-funded technology will be designed as an open-source project, meaning it will be available for other companies and municipalities to adapt and utilize (Rotterdam, Amsterdam, and Brussels have already expressed interest).
The project—a consortium of provincial officials, schools, and technology firms—began with an auspicious call to Google. Bakker says the team involved asked the tech company if they could utilize the autonomous driving technology they’ve been developing for a local shuttle system, and were told no. Bakker says they simply asked, "why can’t we develop it ourselves?" The project then obtained funding from the province, and in concert with the Technical University of Delft, modified vehicles originally designed by robotics manufacturer EasyMile, adding a radar and guidance system.
"The secret was developing without a lot of parties involved," Bakker says. "We were able to make quick decisions and move forward."
The team was challenged by many of the same issues that have bedeviled other driverless car developments, such as accounting for pedestrians, communicating with traffic lights, and understanding how to interpret and react to trees blowing in the wind, and established a guidance system that gained approval from local authorities. When WEpods is up and running later this spring, guests to the Wageningen University will be able to summon a ride from the Ede train station using an iPhone app, and take a leisurely ride (25 kilometres per hour, or 15 mph) to campus. While the system will serve a small, select route, its performance could foreshadow how autonomous vehicle technology could be harnessed to improve public transportation and make it more efficient.
"We designed a robot, and it’s going to drive on the public road," says Bakker.