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Self-driving cars are being tested at London’s Gatwick airport

DRIVERLESS CARS ARE COMING, like it or not, and now London’s Gatwick Airport has announced that it’s putting self-driving vehicles to the test.

The autonomous cars come sporting self-driving systems form British startup Oxbotica and will be used to shuttle airport staff around, all with the goal of making airfield fleet management a heck of a lot easier.

“Airports offer an incredibly interesting domain for our autonomous driving software,” said Graeme Smith, Oxbotica’s chief executive.

“There is a huge diversity of vehicles, each with a very specific mission. The challenge of choreographing all of the activity around an individual plane, or in support of airport operations is immense and we look forward to working closely with Gatwick on this initial pilot that will demonstrate our self-driving technology carrying staff around the airfield.”

Currently, Gatwick has some 300 airside – the term given to activity that happens on the airfield and other parts of the airports where planes taxi around and get prepped for take-off. A good 90 per cent of the time these vehicles are stationary, so having a self-driving mode that can get them to places by themselves rather than waiting on a nearby human could see the fleet used more efficiently and potentially save a few pennies on the airport’s operational costs.

With Oxbotica’s tech, all manner of vehicles can be made autonomous as the software uses LiDAR, which uses rapid pulsing lasers for guidance, meaning there’s no need to rely on GPS tracking and vehicles can be retrofitted with the autonomous system. As such, there’s potential for the airport’s entire vehicle fleet to get some driverless smarts.

“If this trial proves successful then in the future we could have an Uber-like service operating across the airfield which staff can hail as and when they need to travel,” said Cathal Corcoran, chief information officer at Gatwick Airport.

“This trial is just the start and much more research will be needed, but ultimately this could be the start of widespread use of autonomous vehicles on airfields across the world. The new technology is a more efficient way to manage vehicles and could lead to a reduction in the number of vehicles required, their associated costs and harmful emissions.”

On the whole, self-driving cars are thought to be safer and more efficient than human drivers, who are more subject to distraction, rage, and generally being a bit thick or erratic.

That being said a fatal collision between an Uber driverless car and a female pedestrian in Arizona, has slammed autonomous vehicles into scrutiny, even though there was a human behind the wheel who was there to ensure the care operated safely.

As such there’s likely still some way to go to figure out how safe driverless cars are and how aware human passengers need to be on the road ahead when a vehicle is self-driving. µ

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