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Is it a bus? Is it a train? No... it's a superfast Cambridge 'sprinter'

By Ben Comber

AVRT concept vehicle interior
AVRT concept vehicle interior

The driverless shuttle that could be the future of the Cambridge commute is a chance to rebrand public transport says Prof John Miles.

The plan to connect the University of Cambridge’s many campuses with a driverless underground ‘bus’ has grown into an ambitious project that would serve the whole of Greater Cambridge.

Prof John Miles, an energy and transport expert from Cambridge University’s Department of Engineering, sees this as a chance to redefine public transport with a new system: Affordable Very Rapid Transport (AVRT).

“It’s neither a train nor a bus,” he said. “If you start describing it as a train some people would like that, but others would say well, as a train it has to fulfil certain regulations. That’s exactly what you don’t want to start doing. You don’t want to call it a bus because people would say, ‘Well, we don’t want to take a bus’. It’s a mode of transport we haven’t had before. AVRT is the system, it says what it does. But when you talk about the vehicle itself we fall back on calling it a bus or a train, but it is neither. The best name I’ve got so far is ‘sprinter’.”

A sprinter vehicle could be developed for £5million, and that’s the next step – finding the money. Once raised though, the vehicle could be built in 30 months, and tested on the guided busway.

The technology involved is actually quite “vanilla”, Prof Miles said, utilised in different projects around the world. They would be aiming to build something resembling a small regional jet on wheels – long, slim and with sliding doors.

“The question is, would the university ever spend that amount of money to do it?” asked Prof Miles. “And that is probably still an open question because the university isn’t seeking to get money back in the way that a bus operating company would – the university is thinking bigger thoughts. The university is thinking, we’ve got to compete with MIT and Stanford and Tsinghua and University of Tokyo. They are all expanding, trying to attract the best people in the world. We’ve got to do that and if we can attract all these people into Cambridge we’ve got find somewhere for them to live. To that extent it’s a sort of existential problem; if we don’t keep up we drop out of the top five universities in the world, and you’ll never get back in again, you can’t do that. You just slip further and further behind. These days Cambridge has lots of good tech employers in the city. If the likes of AstraZeneca, ARM and Microsoft are going to continue to have their world research headquarters in Cambridge then all the same arguments apply to them as they do to the university.

“I think the priority is now to build and demonstrate a sprinter. We need to put our effort into getting a club of organisations together that have got sufficient interest to actually fund it.”


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