The UK's first demonstration of a teleoperated autonomous vehicle service for people with reduced mobility has been successfully completed as part of the GATEway project (Greenwich Automated Transport Environment), led by TRL.
Taking place at the InterContinental Hotel in the Royal Borough of Greenwich and completed using an autonomous-enabled Toyota Prius, the demonstration marked the end of a fortnight of testing in which GATEway partners Gobotix and O2 were able to successfully demonstrate remote operation of an unmanned vehicle.
The demonstration aimed to show how near-market technology could benefit disabled and older drivers with limited mobility. Using proof of concept technology developed by Gobotix, a wheelchair user drove himself to his final destination before disembarking. The driver then enlisted the support of a remote operator to park his vehicle using 3G and 4G cellular technology from telecommunications provider, O2. For specific situations when cellular coverage would not be possible, e.g. underground car park, the user can also control the vehicle using an app on their own tablet device to manoeuvre or park it from a short distance using in-car Wi-Fi.
Automated vehicle technology has the potential to enhance mobility for people with additional travel needs, including those who are older or have disabilities. But with fully automated, all-weather vehicles not expected to operate on UK roads for a number of years, Gobotix is focusing on what can be done now to drive more immediate benefits.
"Everybody is waiting for the arrival of fully automated vehicles, but there's a lot that vehicle manufacturers can be doing already with existing technology to help improve accessibility and mobility for older and disabled drivers, " said Dr Ben Davis, Technical Director, Gobotix.
"Many modern cars can be adapted so that they are driveable by a remote pilot and what we've demonstrated as part of GATEway is proof of that. By offering a remote teleoperation service, we can remove common concerns around boarding and alighting. It's about empowering those with reduced mobility to retain independence through the use of technology. "
Toby Veall, Disability Consultant and full time wheelchair user following a spinal cord injury, who took part in the demonstration commented: "It's very difficult for able-bodied people to fully understand the challenges facing disabled drivers. One of the main problems is finding suitable parking, which ideally is a disabled space but is not always possible.
"Other challenges include cars parking too close preventing access to the driver's door, uneven surfaces like gravel or grass and hazards such as steep curbs, slopes and cambers. The use of a simple app to remotely park the car would be warmly welcomed by myself and many others with mobility problems and help to remove parking anxieties and improve independence."
The technology is the product of more than two years' work from experts at Gobotix and works on many vehicles which have increasingly common electronic controls and sensors. Using forward facing sensors, the software interprets images and communicates with the vehicle's systems to enable remote operation by a computer or smartphone. Connectivity is provided by a machine-to-machine sim that is able to tap into any network and works on 3G and 4G, while the video feed on the vehicle is used to facilitate obstacle detection and adjust speed accordingly.
The system is the first of its kind solution for remote teleoperation and, unlike most autonomous technologies, will enable cars to be driven semi-autonomously in areas that have not been mapped. It also enables remote recovery of fully automated vehicles should something go wrong, such as software faults or sensor breakdowns. Using the technology a human operator can intervene to remotely navigate vehicles back to a safe location or state of operation.
"In the future, it is anticipated that the technology could be applied to fleets of fully automated vehicles, which could be controlled and operated from a remote control centre when necessary. With further investment, it might also prove useful for local authorities or transport planners looking to improve utilisation and efficiency of car parking in cities. We could make buildings and cities even more accessible beyond just having dedicated disabled spaces."
Commenting on the success of the pilot, Billy D'Arcy Managing Director, Enterprise & Public Sector Business O2 said: "O2 continues to focus on putting customer experience and satisfaction at the heart of everything we do when offering mobile products and services, all to help make customers' lives easier. The GATEway project is a perfect example of this and we're pleased to be supporting it by providing connectivity and counsel for the pilot. What we've shown at Greenwich is how connecting key services via the O2 network and an app on mobile devices, can offer huge mobility benefits to many."
The demonstration is one of a number of trials taking place in the UK Smart Mobility Living Lab as part of the GATEway project. Other trials include automated passenger shuttles, automated urban deliveries and high-fidelity simulator tests to investigate how drivers of regular vehicles respond and adapt their behaviour to the presence of automated vehicles on the roads.
The GATEway project is a world-leading two-year research programme, led by TRL and jointly funded by government and industry. It builds on fifty years of research into automated vehicles by TRL and aims to investigate the use, perception and acceptance of automated vehicles for 'last mile' mobility.
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