Skip to main content

Self-driving pods could be the (boring) future of urban transport

Self-driving pods could be the (boring) future of urban transport

/

A look inside London’s ongoing experiment with autonomous shuttles

Share this story

A pedestrian takes a few pictures then walks away. A pair of cyclists overtakes without a backward glance. A builder barks at us, just for fun. But overall, no one really cares about our self-driving pod as it bumps sedately along the riverside in the quiet London borough of Greenwich. And that’s very good news.  

Pods could be the future of urban transport, say some. They’re quiet, compact, and they maneuver more easily through Europe’s winding streets than regular cars. Since last April, London has been trialing these autonomous vehicles with funding from a consortium of private and public institutions known as the Gateway Project. The aim is to find out how self-driving technology can best be integrated into the UK’s cities, and a big part of that work focuses on pods. They’re not trying to develop the hardware, like the Ubers and Waymos of this world, but explore what works best for the public and whether they even like it.

Are people afraid of self-driving pods? Do they think they’re weird? And will they ever stop absentmindedly wandering in front of us, causing our pod to judder to a halt like a student driver who can’t work the clutch? (The answer to the last question is very much “no.”)

So far, this seems to be one of the most obvious results of the Greenwich Gateway trials: people are remarkably chill about self-driving vehicles in pod form. More than 5,000 members of the public have signed up to use the service as it ferries people up and down a 3.4-kilometer stretch of the river. In a recent survey of around 1,000 individuals, 43 percent said they felt positive about the concept, while only 11 percent didn’t like it. The rest (46 percent) were undecided, worried about either hacking or road safety.

Photo by Tom Warren / The Verge

With the recent death caused by a self-driving Uber in Arizona, road safety is very much on everyone’s mind on the morning of our a test drive. “It’s a very sad event, but I would not want to jump to any conclusions before the facts are known,” is all Jim Hutchinson, CEO of Fusion Processing, will say. Others refused to comment.

At any rate, the pods of Greenwich (for which Fusion Processing provides some of the hardware) are literal and metaphorical miles away from the self-driving SUVs of San Francisco. They’re friendly and unthreatening — all smooth edges and round corners, like a giant pill big. They’re also very slow, moving no faster than 10 mph on the wide tracks (half road, half pavement) of their riverside beat.

The pods look like giant pill bugs and travel at a suitable crawl

Each pod has a pair of double doors, with two leatherette benches facing one another inside. For these test runs, there’s also an engineer present, sitting in the corner and watching a tablet showing various LIDAR and camera streams. He also has a joystick tucked underneath his feet, which will give him manual control should anything go wrong. Our own steward is quiet but friendly. He’s been riding in the pods since last October and says that after a while, you start to understand they’re thinking. “You know when it’s hesitating about something,” he says. “You sense it. It’s like a novice driver moving the steering wheel too much.”

We get to feel plenty of this during our ride because, it turns out, one downside of people being very relaxed around self-driving pods is that they tend to walk in front of them a lot. Hutchinson describes this, generously, as falling into a “range of behavior” from pedestrians, which goes from “completely oblivious, don’t even notice it’s there” to “‘let’s go and jump in front of it and see if it stops.’” He adds quickly: “Of course, it does stop. But it happens quite a bit.”

It’s findings like these that are going to shape the UK’s policy on autonomous vehicles. Trevor Dorling, director of the borough of Greenwich’s digital program, says he’s hopeful that schemes like the Gateway Project will eventually become permanent fixtures, ferrying people around awkward bits of the city that existing services don’t quite cover. “The version we’re most comfortable with is connecting people to mass transit in cities,” says Dorling. “One of these obviously isn’t the most effective way of getting to Manchester. That’s why you have high-speed rail.”

1/6

Photo by Tom Warren / The Verge

And this attitude has traction. In Germany, state-owned rail company Deutsche Bahn is testing similar self-driving pods that will link railway stations and town centers. In France, local startup Navya is building larger, 15-seat shuttles and has set up trials for them in two locations in the US, Las Vegas and Michigan. In all these cases, the pods are running on set routes, filling in gaps in the transport infrastructure. And because of these set routes, it’s easier to make them self-driving, since you come across fewer unexpected obstacles. Technically, the Greenwich pods have Level 4 autonomy, meaning they can operate without human interaction except in difficult weather conditions.

And the neighborhood certainly provides a challenging testing ground. Greenwich is situated in the southeast section of London, and it has a mix of suburban neighborhoods, former industrial lots, disused docks, and one (former) royal hunting park, all served by a range of transport links. “We’ve got roundabouts, mini-roundabouts, crossings, pedestrians, the ferry’s just there, there’s the tube’s nearby, and the Air Line cable car,” says Dorling. For companies that want to test the mettle of their algorithms, “it’s certainly proved attractive.”  

The members of the public who have been testing the pods seem to be happy with them, too. Louisa, Angelica, and Ben, who all signed up for rides on the same day The Verge did are all positive about the experience — though for all three, their ride was for novelty’s sake, rather than part of a meaningful journey. “It was cracking,” says Ben, though he adds “it needs to be a bit quicker.” Louisa says she especially likes the idea of getting a driverless pod on your way back from a night out. “You’d have the car to yourself, you can just jump in with your friends, put your music on, relax.”

But these complaints aren’t just quibbles. If the pods are too slow and if they can’t carry enough people, it’s possible they won’t be able to be a meaningful part of public transit. (You can only fit four people in each pod, compared to 87 passengers in a standard London double-decker bus.) Although the underlying technology is developing quickly and public reception is positive, it’s difficult to say whether vehicles like this are economically viable. How much money is a city willing to pay for a service that doesn’t see heavy use?

Dorling, at least, is positive. “Really what we’re trying to do is catch a wave here,” he says. “There’s less driving going on in younger generations anyway, so if we can find a solution that fits these changes, while also reducing pollution and congestion, well, why not?”

Today’s Storystream

Feed refreshed Sep 25 Not just you

E
Twitter
Emma RothSep 25
Rihanna’s headlining the Super Bowl Halftime Show.

Apple Music’s set to sponsor the Halftime Show next February, and it’s starting out strong with a performance from Rihanna. I honestly can’t remember which company sponsored the Halftime Show before Pepsi, so it’ll be nice to see how Apple handles the show for Super Bowl LVII.


E
Twitter
Emma RothSep 25
Starlink is growing.

The Elon Musk-owned satellite internet service, which covers all seven continents including Antarctica, has now made over 1 million user terminals. Musk has big plans for the service, which he hopes to expand to cruise ships, planes, and even school buses.

Musk recently said he’ll sidestep sanctions to activate the service in Iran, where the government put restrictions on communications due to mass protests. He followed through on his promise to bring Starlink to Ukraine at the start of Russia’s invasion, so we’ll have to wait and see if he manages to bring the service to Iran as well.


E
External Link
Emma RothSep 25
We might not get another Apple event this year.

While Apple was initially expected to hold an event to launch its rumored M2-equipped Macs and iPads in October, Bloomberg’s Mark Gurman predicts Apple will announce its new devices in a series of press releases, website updates, and media briefings instead.

I know that it probably takes a lot of work to put these polished events together, but if Apple does pass on it this year, I will kind of miss vibing to the livestream’s music and seeing all the new products get presented.


E
External Link
Emma RothSep 24
California Governor Gavin Newsom vetoes the state’s “BitLicense” law.

The bill, called the Digital Financial Assets Law, would establish a regulatory framework for companies that transact with cryptocurrency in the state, similar to New York’s BitLicense system. In a statement, Newsom says it’s “premature to lock a licensing structure” and that implementing such a program is a “costly undertaking:”

A more flexible approach is needed to ensure regulatory oversight can keep up with rapidly evolving technology and use cases, and is tailored with the proper tools to address trends and mitigate consumer harm.


Welcome to the new Verge

Revolutionizing the media with blog posts

Nilay PatelSep 13
A
Youtube
Andrew WebsterSep 24
Look at this Thing.

At its Tudum event today, Netflix showed off a new clip from the Tim Burton series Wednesday, which focused on a very important character: the sentient hand known as Thing. The full series starts streaming on November 23rd.


A
The Verge
Andrew WebsterSep 24
Get ready for some Netflix news.

At 1PM ET today Netflix is streaming its second annual Tudum event, where you can expect to hear news about and see trailers from its biggest franchises, including The Witcher and Bridgerton. I’ll be covering the event live alongside my colleague Charles Pulliam-Moore, and you can also watch along at the link below. There will be lots of expected names during the stream, but I have my fingers crossed for a new season of Hemlock Grove.


T
Twitter
Tom WarrenSep 23
Has the Windows 11 2022 Update made your gaming PC stutter?

Nvidia GPU owners have been complaining of stuttering and poor frame rates with the latest Windows 11 update, but thankfully there’s a fix. Nvidia has identified an issue with its GeForce Experience overlay and the Windows 11 2022 Update (22H2). A fix is available in beta from Nvidia’s website.