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Cab to the future

Routemaster buses are on the way out but are robotic, guided, driverless taxis the way forward for urban transit?

The CyberCars conference - held in Antibes, France, this month - was the culmination of three years' research and development by a number of universities and companies, sponsored by the EU, into the development of electric robotic vehicles.

Firms such as Fiat and Dutch company Frog Navigation Systems attended the conference, organised by INRIA from France. Presentations covered many aspects of CyberCars, such as safety, user reaction, cost reduction and the large potential market - at present untapped.

The 20-person ParkShuttle bus, by Frog subsidiary 2getthere, ran along a 500m stretch of exclusive roadway.

Running driverless, using an onboard computer, the bus 'read' tiny magnets set at 3m intervals, allowing it to do precise reverse turns at either end and stop at two points. In an impressive 'safety' demonstration, a staff member stood in its path and the bus, travelling at 16km/hr using its infrared camera, started to slow at 20m, to come to a stop 1m away from its 'obstacle'.

Six ParkShuttles, run by Dutch transport authority Connexxion, will connect an underground station in Rotterdam with the Rivium business park and will be running by next spring.

The other CyberCars demonstrated were two-person bubble cars, called CyCabs, or four to six-person cabins intended for use individually or as taxis in towns. A CyCab could be hailed and the passenger driven to his or her required destination, whereupon it would find its way back automatically to its parking area. The control systems use infrared and GPS (Global Positioning System, ie satellite), sensing the position of pavement kerbs or following a white painted line.

Mixing such tiny vehicles with other road vehicles seemed doubtful and the open-sided cabins looked vulnerable, although running them slowly within pedestrian-only areas might work and their use as smallgoods delivery vehicles would also be worth studying.

Local politicians, the mayor and a state senator all made stirring speeches about 'L'avenir' (the future), which would be car-free, safe and clean.

None suggested that anything should be done now about traffic in Antibes, which by mid-summer is pretty awful.

The intention is that ParkShuttles would run around the harbour within three years but must not remove any parking. So whether CyberCars will be the catalyst to change this attitude in the future remains the big question.

Brian Richards is a freelance writer and author of Future Transport in Cities

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