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Self-driving cars hit the road for first public test in the UK

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Jolly good timing

Fabio De Paola/PA

Self-driving cars — or more accurately self-driving pods — took to the road in a city outside of London Tuesday in what organizers are calling the first public test of driverless cars in the UK. To be sure, it was at extremely low speeds in a sparsely trafficked area, but was still celebrated as a milestone by Great Britain, which has lagged behind the US in testing self-driving cars.

Fabio De Paola/PA

The autonomous Lutz Pathfinder Pod, developed by the Oxford Robotics Institute and a university spinout company Oxbotica, navigated its way around a small area in the southern English town of Milton Keynes at 5 mph, turning corners and stopping as pedestrians crossed its path, according to Reuters. The test was overseen by the government-sponsored Transport Systems Catapult, a non-profit that funds innovation projects in the UK.

The egg-shaped vehicle, with its purple trim, electric battery, and spinning LIDAR sensors, looked more like one of Google’s self-driving prototypes than any of the more traditional looking driverless cars that are currently being tested in the US.

It was the first of several tests planned for the UK in the coming months, since the government gave the green light to autonomous vehicles trials on public roads last year. The Meridian shuttle in the southern London borough of Greenwich has been testing its vehicles, which look like elongated golf carts, on private roads for over a year. Another project is run by Venturer and will be operating out of Bristol. A spokesperson for Oxbotica said their vehicle was the first to be tested in an “unsegregated public area.”

Fabio De Paola/PA

Much like the US government, the UK has said it wants to take a "light touch, non-regulatory approach" to trials of autonomous vehicles. The plan is to encourage companies to put more self-driving cars on the roads by 2020, with the goal of building an industry to serve a global market that’s worth £900 million ($1.1 trillion) by 2025.

For now, the goal of weird-looking, driverless pods like the Lutz Pathfinder Pod is to acclimate the public to the concept of self-driving vehicles, organizers say. "If people can see that these vehicles are capable of driving themselves they can gain trust in them,” Neil Fulton, a program director at the Transport Systems Catapult told Reuters.

But where it goes from there will be the true test. Organizers say they want 40 driverless pods operating in Milton Keynes by next year. Meanwhile, carmakers Jaguar Land Rover and Volvo are spearheading their own driverless car projects in the UK, as they seek to head off technology companies that are testing autonomous vehicles like Google and Uber.