An artist's impression of what the pods in Milton Keynes will look like
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Pedestrians rage at autonomous pods and delivery bots on pavements

Image credit: UK Autodrive

Enthusiasts for walking and cycling have vented their annoyance at the decision to unleash self-driving vehicles on UK footways as part of government-backed trials which fly in the face of “carriages” convention.

Groups critical of Britain’s dependence on the motorcars that clog city centres are furious at plans to trial a fleet of 40 autonomous taxis in pedestrianised zones, saying the project makes a mockery of efforts to encourage walking.

Four-seater battery-powered pods with top speeds of 15mph will use roadside footways in Milton Keynes as they ferry business passengers from the railway station to offices and a shopping centre as part of a series of multi million-pound government-backed trials.

Driverless cars being trialled in London are also shunning the road and making use of space normally considered off-limits to motorised transport. In one such trial in Woolwich, London, an autonomous vehicle will travel through a newly designated “pedestrian-friendly environment” to bring free luxury groceries to customers of upmarket supermarket Ocado.

In other parts of the UK, small six-wheeled robots that deliver takeaways are being rolled out on urban pavements, despite their use of footways being a legal grey area.

Stephen Joseph, chief executive of the Campaign for Better Transport, cited Pixar’s animated science-fiction film ‘WALL-E’, about a robot in a world denuded of human beings, as he detailed his fear of a future “where there are no pavements and businessmen will be ferried around even short distances”.

He said the Milton Keynes scheme would mean “people will sit in these little vehicles which push people off pavements and they will get fatter and fatter rather than walking”, adding, “If this is what autonomous vehicles are going to be like, it takes us in the wrong direction.”

A Georgian-era law that remains in force in Britain today stipulates no “carriage” may be ridden on the pavement. More recent legislation has clarified that cars are defined as a type of carriage regardless of whether they are human-operated or self-driving.

Milton Keynes Council’s transport chief Brian Matthews insisted the local authority had obtained a special traffic order allowing the footway to be reclassified as an extension of the road in order for the trial, known as UK Autodrive, to take place without flouting the law.

He also claimed Milton Keynes Council had received just two letters of complaint from pedestrians concerned about having their space invaded by self-driving cars.

One critic of the scheme is understood to now be taking legal advice about the prospect of bringing a test case centring on supposedly wrongful use of footways by various types of vehicle nationally.

Peter Miller, a computer scientist who runs the website Pedestrian Liberation, told E&T he fears government-backed trials of autonomous vehicles rested on an assumption that privately-owned vehicles will continue to form a component of urban transport.

“The private car doesn’t, and never has, functioned properly in cities,” Miller said. “Los Angeles has tried harder than any city to make the car work and they are now strong advocates for trains and are putting in more light-rail lines. Driverless vehicles are fine. Driverless private cars are a disaster.”

Cycling campaigner and author Carlton Reid said it was “ironic” that driverless motorcars were being trialled on pavements while cyclists were regularly vilified for pedalling on them. He accused Milton Keynes Council of giving autonomous vehicles “carte blanche” on the footway.

“When this issue comes up, cyclists tend to go ‘Oh, bloody hell!’, because we get attacked for cycling on the footway, but here are these autonomous vehicles doing it and they’re not being attacked,” he said.

Milton Keynes, a notoriously car-friendly conurbation that was founded as one of the UK’s new towns in the 1960s, is not alone in making more room for vehicles in spaces from which cars have traditionally been excluded. Cyclists were horrified when a dedicated riverside bike lane was commandeered for use by an autonomous shuttle bus in the Greenwich Peninsula district of London earlier this year as part of another government-backed trial.

The London Cycling Campaign (LCC) said it was “assessing the impact” of the cycle path’s closure and wider issues relating to driverless cars being trialled in the UK capital.

One leading engineer working on a rival self-driving cars project described as “a bit naughty” the decision to unleash autonomous pods on Britain’s pavements and cycle lanes, and questioned whether such experiments would yield useful data about the technology’s performance in real-world conditions on the country’s roads.

UK Autodrive said there would be testing of “regular” autonomous cars on roads in Milton Keynes and also Coventry in addition to the on-pavement tests of pods manufactured by RDM Group, which are intended to provide a “last mile” journey.

Several UK cities have also been involved in trials of six-wheeled robots able to bring takeaway food deliveries to people’s doors. Manufactured by Estonian tech company Starship Technologies, the bots drive along pavements at slow speeds because they would be squashed by larger traffic if they braved the road. A spokesman for Starship Technologies said the company “never delivers in a location that it is not approved to operate in” and said some boroughs in London had “approved delivery robots”, though the company did not specify what level of approval had been granted.

When using pedestrian zones, the driverless pods being trialled in Milton Keynes and London are currently accompanied at all times by human marshals.

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