A Mellor Orion  bus

UK unveils first fully autonomous bus service

Image credit: Mellor Bus

The UK’s first self-driving electric bus service has been unveiled at a business and technology park in Oxfordshire.

The UK's first zero-emission self-driving bus service has started a trial on public roads to serve Milton Park, a business, science and technology park located in Oxfordshire.

The buses will be operated by First Bus, as part of a project to explore “the art of the possible”. The pilot project will analyse how passengers, drivers, other road users and pedestrians respond to autonomous buses, the company said.  

The project involves two all-electric fully autonomous vehicles on public roads. The self-driving minibus is already in operation, with a full-size single-decker to be added later this year for journeys between the park and Didcot Parkway railway station. 

The £4.3m project received a £3m grant from the government alongside commercial and private sector funding.

Autonomous bus driving aroud Milton

Autonomous bus driving aroud Milton/ PA Media

Image credit: PA Media

The trial, which began on Monday (23 January), will start taking passengers in February.

In addition to the vehicles being fitted with autonomous technology including cameras and sensors, the buses will have a safety driver who is able to take over at any point and take full manual control if needed. 

"We're not going to, at any point, compromise safety and that is why we're going to take this really sensible step-by-step approach," said Richard Holden MP, under secretary of state with responsibility for roads and local transport.

“The launch of the UK’s first autonomous, zero-emission bus today is yet another key step towards achieving net zero, creating high-wage, high-skilled new jobs and opportunities while truly levelling up transport across the country.”

Holden was among the first to travel on the autonomous bus as part of a special demonstration.

Self-driving bus closeup

Self-driving bus closeup / PA Media

Image credit: PA Media

Janette Bell, managing director at First Bus, added that the bus is the "convergence of both zero-emission technology and autonomous bus".

"I think it's really important that we see how those two technologies can work together," she said. 

First Bus head of policy John Birtwistle said it is “only a matter of time” before electric buses are used across the UK, but “the autonomous side of things is more about exploring the art of the possible”.

“The technology is spreading to different forms of transport, including potential use in buses and coaches," he added. “We need to explore how it works, how well accepted it is by the general public, how it works for operations, how drivers react to it, and how people who aren’t using the services react to it.”

Self-driving bus stop in Milton.

Self-driving bus stop in Milton / PA Media

Image credit: PA Media

Birtwistle said “rigorous” testing has taken place to ensure the vehicles will “absolutely” be safe.

The buses are “capable of coping with all the different experiences you would have from day-to-day”, he explained.

“They can deal with traffic signals. They can deal with roundabouts. They can deal with parked vehicles. They can make all the turning manoeuvres as well as simple braking and acceleration.

“They can wait for gaps in traffic [before pulling out].”

The buses will also be zero emission and fully accessible to wheelchair users and prams. 

The service is being developed alongside partners including Oxfordshire County Council, transport information company Zipabout, Milton Park, automated vehicle systems provider Fusion Processing and the University of West England.

The project will last for three months and the service could be extended to Didcot Parkway train station later in 2023.

Self-driving bus security driver

Self-driving bus security driver / PA Media

Image credit: PA Media

Currently, fully driverless cars are not legally permitted in the UK. However, autonomous features are being developed by car makers and tested in specific trials such as a bus service in Scotland.

In August last year, the UK announced a £100m investment to boost the rollout of autonomous vehicles, with a view towards having the technology hit the country's roads by 2025.  

Two months prior, MPs had announced the launch of an inquiry into the safe development and deployment of self-driving cars.

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