“Stay on guard, humans,” says the subhead on a recent tech radar article by David Nield. Nield is writing about the WEpod, the first autonomous electric shuttle to be used on public roads. It will make its debut on those roads in November, between the towns of Wageningen and Ede in Gelderland, Netherlands, as J.C. Torres reported for Slash Gear.
Although Europe already has self-driving shuttles in London and in Rotterdam, they are limited to dedicated lanes, Torres wrote. The WEpods are different in that they will use the same lanes as human-driven vehicles. “That makes the WEpod both more interesting and nerve-wracking.”
If a self-driving car already has you anxious, imagine a larger vehicle that can carry six passengers at once on regular roads. Of course, it will still be tested and during that test stage, the WEpod won’t exactly be trying to meet challenging road conditions head on. For example, it will avoid rush hour traffic or driving at night. It will also be cruising at a speed of 25 kph [15.5 miles per hour] only.
Shuttle’s Test Record
The WEpod and its predecessor, the EZ10, have transported approximately 19,000 passengers in Vantaa, Finland, and on the campus of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Lausanne (EPFL). It is designed so that people who need a ride can use an app to reserve seats and specify where they want to be picked up and dropped off. The WEpod figures out its route via a combination of GPS sensors and on-board cameras.
According to the shuttle’s website, WEpods.nl, the name WEpod comes from Wageningen and Ede, along with “everyone (we) involved in the project: the county, the Food Valley region, the project, local residents, users etc.” The “pod” part of the name describes small automatic vehicle.
The WEpods consortium is conducting the pilot program in a partnership with businesses, and government and research institutions. Once the test phase has been completed, the consortium will spend May through July of 2016 transporting foreign visitors to the Wageningen University and Research Centre (WUR) and the Wageningen University campus. The project will culminate in an operational plan for the next steps.
Self-Driven Shuttle Hardware
The WEpods project is using EasyMile‘s EZ-10 model shuttle, which was created for the Citymobil2 project. The WEpods consortium will fit out the shuttle with technical equipment — including cameras, laser, radar, and GPS — so the vehicle can observe and interpret its surroundings and drive safely, Rogier Leavening wrote for WEpods.
Among the questions people have asked in comments on the WEpods site are whether the WEpods will have seat belts and air bags. Alvin Bakker responded for WEpods that vehicle safety is “obviously an important issue” and that the consortium is looking into seat belts. Another commenter asked if WEpods are at risk of being hacked. Bakker responded that there is always that risk, since even regular cars are already being hacked. WEPods works to reduce the likelhood of risk: “We do this by focusing on our project expertise in the field of data hacking.”