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Trials of autonomous vehicles proposed for University of Cambridge’s West Cambridge

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Engineering tests of autonomous vehicles are due to begin next month ahead of potential trials with passengers on the university’s West Cambridge campus early next year.

The Greater Cambridge Partnership hopes autonomous shuttle services to major employment sites could become part of the public transport network.

An impression of an autonomous vehicle, released in 2018. Picture: GCP (42333151)
An impression of an autonomous vehicle, released in 2018. Picture: GCP (42333151)

It announced in February 2018 that a £3.2million grant would help Cambridge develop the service .

A trial on the guided busway was planned, “with the prototype vehicles being tested in late summer 2019, and the first passengers stepping on board in summer 2020”.

But the impact of Covid-19 and design compatibility issues with the busway have changed the timeframe and scope of the project.

Explaining the vision in 2018, the GCP said: “The trial will pave the way for an autonomous shuttle service that will run in the early mornings, late evenings and during the weekends, filling the current void for shift workers, revellers and weekend shoppers. The initial service will run between Trumpington Park & Ride and Cambridge Station.

“If successful, self-driving vehicles could then be rolled out elsewhere round Greater Cambridge, for example to link some of the science and business campuses to each other or to rural travel hubs.”

The funding was secured by Smart Cambridge, which is part of the GCP.

Coventry-based engineering firm Aurrigo is developing the vehicles. Working with the GCP and Smart Cambridge it trialled an autonomous four-seater “pod” in Cambridge in 2017.

Driverless vehicles on the guided busway in 2017
Driverless vehicles on the guided busway in 2017

A public report for the GCP’s executive board in October 2019 said the prototype vehicles were still being developed.

“There have been several iterations on the design of the chassis which have led to vehicle trials being delayed,” it said.

In February this year, a report said issues with the supply chain and the chassis had been resolved and non-passenger trials were due to begin in April 2020, with passenger trials remaining on track to start this summer.

But this has been postponed due to the pandemic.

A GCP report from its joint assembly earlier this month said the trial’s end date has been moved from December 2020 to March 2021, the number of vehicles has dropped from six to three, and the trials will no longer take place on the guided busway, but on the University of Cambridge’s West Cambridge site off Madingley Road.

“While this will not be as extensive a trial as we had previously hoped, officers remain positive that we are still able to deliver a smaller trial that will offer valuable insight into the deployment of AVs as part of the local transport offering,” the report said.

Driverless vehicles on the guided busway in 2017
Driverless vehicles on the guided busway in 2017

A GCP spokesperson said: “Autonomous vehicles are an exciting technology that could offer people a safe and reliable way to travel to the city centre and employment sites late at night or out of regular service hours in the future.

“Initial engineering trials to demonstrate how these vehicles could operate in Greater Cambridge were postponed due to the Covid-19 pandemic and are now scheduled to begin next month. If these engineering trials are successful, this could lead to a trial with selected passengers around the West Cambridge campus early next year.

“These project trials were always intended to look at the feasibility of this technology being used as part of a public transport service. Successful trials will give the GCP evidence to consider when planning future transport schemes.”

Aurrigo has been contacted for comment.

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