How did driverless cars cope in last week’s London’s snow?

The pod, in better weather. Image: GATEway Project.

There’s one London driver that didn’t react badly to last week’s snow: Greenwich’s driverless pod.

The GATEway project runs a pod – the same vehicle used at Heathrow to ferry drivers from the parking lot to the terminals – around a 3.4km route on the Greenwich peninsula. The aim isn’t currently to test the automated technology, but to understand public perception to driverless vehicles.

Still, when you have a chance to test driverless tech in snow, you take it, says Jim Hutchinson, CEO at Fusion Technology, the company behind the automated pod tech. “We want it to go beyond what a human driver could reasonably cope with,” he explains. “That is our aim, but right now, for this trial it’s not a requirement that it can do that. It was more an opportunistic thing really: there was snow on the ground, so let’s take it out and see if it’s as good as it should be.”

And it worked better than expected – though there were differences in the automated pods’ winter driving, compared to the usual weather. Hutchinson said he noticed that it drove a slightly different line than usual, off by “centimetres rather than metres”.

“There were some positioning inaccuracies – they weren’t terrible, but the precision was reduced,” he says. “The degradation wasn’t that appreciable, so that was very good from our point of view.”

That’s down to the car “seeing” less well in the snow. “When you coat everything in white, you no longer have the same definition,” he notes. 

This driverless system doesn’t rely on a single type of computer vision. Driving would be more difficult in snowy conditions if it only used LIDAR – “Light Detection and Ranging”, which pings light at surfaces and measures how long it takes to come back.

But the GATEway technology also uses radar and cameras to see. “Because our system uses a broad range of sensors, we’re perhaps a little bit more robust than some systems that are solely reliant on LIDAR, which can be susceptible to more adverse conditions,” Hutchinson says. “By using radar and to some extent cameras as well we can get around some of those problems better than if you rely on a single sensor type.”

The GATEway pods have fewer challenges than full-blown driverless cars that will take to the roads, however. The pods follow a set route on a pathway, so they needn’t worry about missing a snow-covered stop sign.

Driverless cars that do take to roads will need more robust systems for getting around when snow has obliterated road markings and wiped out signage. In response, Ford is testing detailed 3D maps, while Finnish researchers in December sent their driverless car hurtling down a snow-covered motorway at 25mph using radar, cameras, and GPS – but the road was also kitted out with sensors to help with positioning. 

Seeing in a blizzard is only part of the problem of winter driving, of course, and radar isn’t much help if you’re spinning your wheels or sliding off the road. The GATEway pods don’t have traction control featured in most regular modern cars, but sensors help them understand when there’s a mismatch between what the wheels are doing and how fast the vehicle is actually moving. (This is a feat not managed by my neighbour, who spun his tires for ten minutes before trying de-icing spray on the road.)

Faced with slippery pathways, the Greenwich pod did what a “responsible driver” would do, Hutchinson said. It simply slowed down.

GATEway safety stewards (that is, people) were riding in the driverless cars in the snow – Hutchinson admitted they were initially nervous, but eventually relaxed – but no other passengers faced the Beast from the East from inside an autonomous pod. Was he worried about safety? “My biggest concern would have been that the ground was quite slippery – so just people getting in and out of it would have been my biggest concern, rather than people being in it,” he says.

Of course, those left to walk home on the slippery pavements rather than catch a ride in a covered pod may disagree. Indeed, offering rides in inclement weather is the aim. “It’s really going to help in those sorts of conditions, that’s when you want them…  When it’s really unpleasant, it can make a big difference to your day if you have a comfortable means to get to your destination.”

That’s a lesson learned by Hutchinson last week, after his journey home via stalled trains took 26 hours. But unless you live along the pods’ limited route in Greenwich, the rest of us have many more winters ahead of trudging through the snow on foot before this tech is ready to widespread enough to carry us home.

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Why doesn’t London build an RER network, like Paris did?

A commuter walking by a map of the RER B line at the Chatelet-Les Halles station in Paris. Image: Getty.

I’ve heard many people make many different complaints about the Parisian transport system. That it does a bad job of linking a rich, white city with its poorer, more diverse suburbs. That, even as subway systems go, it’s a hostile environment for women. That the whole thing smells distractingly of urine.

I’m familiar with all of these complaints – I’ve often smelt the urine. And I’m aware that, in many ways, London’s is the superior transport network.

And yet I can’t help be jealous of Paris – In large part, because of the RER.

Central Paris. The Metro lines are thinner, and in pastel shades; the RER lines are thicker, and in brighter colours. Image: RATP.

Paris, you see, has not one but two underground railway systems. The more famous one is the original Paris Metro, opened in 1900: that’s the one with those fancy green portals with the word “metropolitain” written above them in a vaguely kooky font.

The Metro, though, mostly serves Paris Intra-muros: the official city, inside the Boulevard Périphérique ring road, site of the city’s last set of walls. As a result, it’s of very little use in most of the city’s suburbs. Its stations are very close together, which places a limit on how fast its trains can cross town. It was also, by the mid 20th century, becoming annoyingly overcrowded.

So starting in the 1960s, the city transport authorities began planning a second underground railway network. The Réseau Express Régional – Regional Express Network – would link suburban lines on either side of Paris, through new heavy rail tunnels beneath the city. Its stations would be much further apart than those of the metro – roughly one every 3km, rather than every 600m – so its trains can run faster.

And fifty years and five lines later, it means that 224 stations in the suburbs of Paris are served by trains which, rather than terminating on the edge of the city, now continue directly through tunnels to its centre.

The RER network today. Image: RATP.

London is, belatedly, doing something similar. The Elizabeth Line, due to open in stages from later this year, will offer express-tube style services linking the suburban lines which run west from Paddington to those which run east from Liverpool Street. And Thameslink has offered cross-town services for 30 years now (albeit not at tube-level frequencies). That, too, is going to add more routes to its network over the next few years, meaning direct trains from the southern suburbs to north London and vice versa.

Yet the vast majority of suburban National Rail services in London still terminate at big mainline stations, most of which are on the edge of the centre. For many journeys, especially from the south of the city, you still need to change to the London Underground.

So, could London ape Paris – and make Thameslink and Crossrail the first element of its own RER network?

In a limited way, of course, it’s doing just that. The next big project after Crossrail is likely to be (original name, this) Crossrail 2. If that gets funding, it’ll be a new south-west to north-east route, connecting some of the suburban lines into Waterloo to those in the Lea Valley.

The proposed route of Crossrail 2. Click to expand.

But it’s not immediately obvious where you could go next – what Crossails 3, 4 or 5 should cover.

That’s because there’s an imbalance in the distribution of the remaining mainline rail services in London. Anyone who’s even remotely familiar with the geography of the city will know that there are far more tube lines to its north. But the corollary of that is that there are far more mainlines to the south.

To usefully absorb some of those, Crossrail 3 would probably need to run south to south in some way. There is actually an obvious way of doing this: build a new tunnel from roughly Battersea to roughly Bermondsey, and take over the Richmond lines in the west and North Kent lines in the east, as a sort of London equivalent of RER C:

Our suggestion for Crossrail 3. Image: Google Maps/CityMetric.

But that still leaves a whole load of lines in south and south east London with nowhere to send them beyond their current terminal stations.

In fact, there are reasons for thinking that the whole RER concept doesn’t really fit the British capital. It was designed, remember, for a city in which the Metro only served the centre (roughly equivalent of London’s zones 1 & 2).

But London Underground wasn’t like that. From very early in its history, it served outer London too: it was not just a way of getting people around the centre, but for getting them there from their suburban homes too.

This is turn is at least in part a function of the economic geography of the two cities. Rich Parisians have generally wanted to live in the centre, pushing poorer people out to the banlieues. In London, though, the suburbs were where the good life was to be found.

To that end, the original operators of some lines weren’t just railway companies, but housing developers, too. The Metropolitan Railway effectively built large chunks of north west London (“Metroland”), partly to guarantee the market for its trains, but partly too because, well, housing is profitable.

In other parts of town, existing main line railways were simply added to the new underground lines. The Central line swallowed routes originally built by the Great Western Railway and London & North Eastern Railway. The District line absorbed part of the London, Tilbury & Southend Railway.

At any rate: the Tube was playing the same role as the RER as early as the 1930s. London could still benefit from some RER-type services, so hopefully the Elizbaeth Line won’t be the last. But it doesn’t need an entire second metro network in the way 1960s Paris did.

There is another idea we could more profitably steal from Paris. Those suburban railways which aren’t connected to the RER are still run by the national rail operator, SNCF. But it uses the Transilien brand name, to mark them out as a part of the Parisian transport network, and – as with the RER – each route has its own letter and its own colour.

The Transilien & RER networks in Paris. Image: Maximilian Dörrbecker/Wikimedia Commons.

This would not have the transformative effect on London that building another half a dozen Crossrails would. But it would make the network much easier to navigate, and would be almost infinitely cheaper. Perhaps we should be starting there.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites

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