In November, two electric vehicles will begin traveling between Wageningen University and the city of Ede in the Netherlands, a distance of about 3.5 miles. Called WEpods, they are glassy boxes with no discernable front or back, which is not a concern since they have no steering wheels or other operator controls. They’ll be summoned to regular stops by a smartphone app, open their doors to load up to twelve passengers (extending a wheelchair ramp, if necessary), and then they’ll take to the roads at a blistering 15 mph.
The WEpods will be pulling onto roadways with vehicles piloted by humans — some of whom, say the odds, would have difficultly passing a Turing test. Though close kin to the WEpods have been in use on dedicated roadways at airports and in other controlled locations, this is the first regular service in which autonomous vehicles will mix with traffic and other assorted road hazards.
During the first stages of the program, the WEpods will not operate during bad weather or rush hour, or at night. And while the vehicles are covered with cameras, radar, and laser sensors, and are fully autonomous — right down to intelligently scheduling the most efficient pick-up schedules — there’s still human intelligence backing them up. When anything out-of-the ordinary is encountered along the route (or if a passenger presses a communications button), a technician at a central control center can assess the situation via the cameras, and prompt the WEpod to activate a variety of subroutines to take it around an obstacle, or simply back up out of trouble.
Of course, the biggest obstacle WEpod will need to get around is regulatory, and there’s no legal precedent for robots racing around on public roadways. But if they pass this test, we’ll soon see WEpods and dozens of other vehicles creeping through the Dutch countryside. And shortly after that, it won’t even seem strange.
The images in this story are presented courtesy of the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne.
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