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A public testing of the driverless car occurred for the first ever time today in Milton Keynes in the UK. The two-seater electric vehicle travelled in a 1km (0.6-mile) loop on the pavements around the town’s railway station.

The team that made it happen hopes a fleet of 40 of the pods will be available to the public starting next year. The test was dubbed “a landmark step” towards bringing self-driving vehicles to the roads of the UK. Local dignitaries and members of the press sat alongside a safety driver, who was there to take the car out of autonomous mode in case there was an emergency.

Neil Fulton, programme director, said,

This public demonstration represents a major milestone for autonomous vehicles in the UK and the culmination of an extensive project involving UK companies and experts. Oxford University’s technology will go on to power automated vehicles around the world, and the project will now feed into a much wider programme of autonomous trials across the UK. Driverless vehicles are coming to Britain, and what we have demonstrated today is a huge step on that journey.

This was in regards to the autonomy software running the vehicle. Named Selenium, it was developed by Oxford University’s Oxford Robotics Institute and integrated by Oxford University spinout company Oxbotica. Selenium uses data from cameras and LIDAR systems to navigate its way around its immediate environment. The pod will therefore be able to operate fully without human control, using data from cameras and radars to move around pedestrianised areas.

The UK government is raring to lead the way on the development of driverless car technology. To this end, it is encouraging technology companies, carmakers and start-ups to develop and test their autonomous driving technologies in Britain, aiming to serve a worldwide market which it forecasts could be worth around 900 billion pounds ($1.1 trillion) by 2025. It also launched a consultation on changes to insurance rules and motoring regulations to allow driverless cars to be used by 2020, earlier this year. As for allowing such vehicles to be tested on motorways, that will become a feasible option from next year onwards.

The test-run in Milton Keynes is the result of 18 months of rigorous planning. Organizers in Milton Keynes ran a number of exercises prior to the trial, including mapping the town and conducting safety planning with the local council to ensure the vehicles would be safe, conform to regulations and receive public acceptance. Mr Fulton said that public response to the vehicles, which will be on show for three days, had been “overwhelmingly positive.” The city, around 45 miles (70 km) north of London, was selected alongside three other locations for autonomous technology projects partly due to its wide pavements and cycle path network.

Business and Energy Secretary Greg Clark said,

Today’s first public trials of driverless vehicles in our towns is a ground-breaking moment and further evidence that Britain is at the forefront of innovation. The global market for autonomous vehicles present huge opportunities for our automotive and technology firms. And the research that underpins the technology and software will have applications way beyond autonomous vehicles.

Carmakers Jaguar Land Rover and Ford are both part of driverless car projects in Britain, as major carmakers jump on the bandwagon being currently steered by technology firms such as Alphabet’s Google, which is also developing autonomous vehicles. However, all parties still need to overcome technological and legal obstacles, including determining who would be responsible in the event of an accident, with recent accidents involving driving assistance systems raising safety concerns.

Meanwhile, other driverless car trials are also being carried out in Bristol and London. Both are likely to go public in the not-so-distant future.


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