Strange vehicles like jelly moulds on wheels have started roaming round the O2 in Greenwich. They give people lifts, taking them where they want to go on demand, choosing the best routes, avoiding obstacles, safely and quietly. Without any human guidance.

These autonomous shuttles are part of a government push to make Britain a leader in this important new area of technology but are also a vital part of the Royal Borough's initiative to become a smart city.

The self-driving shuttles have stolen the limelight because they are new and shiny and, well, they drive themselves, but Trevor Dorling, managing director of Digital Greenwich, a unit set up by the local authority to develop its smart city strategy, explains they are only part of the programme. "As a local authority we are particularly interested in issues such as optimisation of space, productivity, congestion and air quality," he says.

Congestion costs the UK economy about £20 billion a year in lost production

Overall, congestion costs the UK economy about £20 billion a year in lost production, Dorling points out, and air quality in London falls short of European standards. Autonomous vehicles are expected to dramatically improve road safety by eliminating human error.

 

The new autonomous shuttles are only part of the coming smart transport system with the potential to address these issues. Their immediate purpose, however, is much more limited - they are designed to establish how ordinary members of the public will react, both as travellers and as road users who will have to adapt to this new, alien vehicle. "It is more about public acceptance rather than the technology. There is a lot of work being done around how people react to driverless vehicles both when they are in them and outside, going about their normal business," Dorling explains.

The results will throw some light on a vexed question: will people want to own their own autonomous cars or will they prefer to rent?

"We feel that the future is more likely to be one of car sharing and cars as a service. We think there will be new entrants such as the pods, and we will see massive disruption in the car market," Dorling believes. "We think the real opportunity is to have seamless, integrated transport using shuttles linked with mass transit."

We feel that the future is more likely to be one of car sharing and cars as a service
- Trevor Dorling, Managing Director, Digital Greenwich

If this vision comes to pass, it could change the face of the city by releasing huge areas currently used to park cars. "In Europe, 92 per cent of cars are stationary, parked outside people's houses, all the time. We believe is that it is possible to overcome that but only if there is an integrated approach looking both at the built environment and how we design our cities, the design of the vehicle and the design of the surface. All of those things need to come together."

This vision of an integrated transport structure is the aim of the European Horizon 2020 project called Sharing Cities, in which Greenwich is a demonstrator with others in Lisbon and Milan. "We are looking at how, through integration of energy, transport and ICT, coupled with closer working with local residents and businesses we can achieve better outcomes – greater efficiency in energy use, a better and more sustainable environment," Dorling says.