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Autonomous vehicles aren’t quite here yet, but they’re getting closer each day. For proof, look to one small experiment being conducted in the Netherlands. WEpods are called so in honour of the two towns that will be soon hosting them, Wageningen and Ede in the south-central province of Gelderland. This driverless bus system will be transporting visitors to a local university come this May.
The six-passenger vehicles pale in comparison with the autonomous transportations systems operated in Rotterdam or the Heathrow bus shuttles, at least in terms of capacity. But in one key area they are far ahead of the game: the WEpods won’t be running on dedicated tracks, but on the same roads used by everybody else.
“It’s very strange to trust a robot to drive you from one place to another,” says project manager Alwin Bakker.
The WEpods are currently undergoing a two-month test phase down a 200 metre stretch of public road. If everything runs smoothly, they will be ferrying passengers as soon as this coming May.
The WEpods were disgned, tested, and approved in less that two years for the miniscule cost of €3.4 million ($3.8 million) for a pair. Bakker says that the government-funded technology will be open-sourced to other municipalities that want them, and several have already expressed interest (including Amsterdam, Brussels, and others).
The project took off after a call to Google. Interested in developing an autonomous local shuttle system, the team contacted the tech giant asking if they could use its driverless technology. Google said no.
Bakker says they then asked, “why can’t we develop it ourselves?” They got funding from the province, and in cooperation with the Technical University of Delft, tweaked vehicles designed by robotics manufacturer EasyMile for their purposes.
“We designed a robot, and it’s going to drive on the public road,” says Bakker.