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The UK’s first driverless city centre bus service is set to start in Sunderland later this year


  • The government-backed pilot scheme is being heralded as a ‘trailblazer’

Britain’s first city centre driverless bus service is set to begin transporting passengers across Sunderland this spring – heralding a new era of ‘autonomous’ public transport.

The government-backed pilot scheme is being heralded as a ‘trailblazer’ for new age urban transport.

The first self-driving Sunderland Advanced Mobility Shuttle (SAMS) has arrived in the city, with a free passenger service due to launch in the coming months.

Three zero emission shuttle buses will take passengers on a three-mile route between the Sunderland bus interchange, the city’s university campus and the Sunderland Royal Hospital.

Under the initial pilot scheme there will be two ‘safety attendants’ on board to ‘oversee and manage’ the self-driving vehicle’s operation.

The first self-driving Sunderland Advanced Mobility Shuttle (SAMS) (pictured) has arrived in the city, with a free passenger service due to launch in the coming months

The first self-driving Sunderland Advanced Mobility Shuttle (SAMS) (pictured) has arrived in the city, with a free passenger service due to launch in the coming months

The pioneering operation is a joint initiative involving the local authority, university researchers, bus and technology companies and the government. Private industry and the Government are both providing £3million in funding for the scheme.

Last year self-driving buses began carrying passengers on a 14-mile route over the Forth road bridge to the outskirts of Edinburgh.

But the Sunderland scheme is more complex as it involves a busy city centre route.

The shuttles will run along an ‘intelligent transport corridor’, involving the installation of a 5G cellular network along the route to enable a constant exchange of information with the vehicle.

Running alongside the existing bus services, the operation of the self-driving shuttles will be closely monitored and assessed to provide a model for urban services in future.

Patrick Melia, chief executive at Sunderland City Council, said: ‘As we prepare to welcome the Sunderland Advanced Mobility Shuttle to our city streets, we are embarking on an exciting journey towards a more connected and sustainable future.

‘SAMS represents a significant leap forward in our efforts to embrace innovation and improve the quality of life for our residents. We look forward to seeing the positive impact this self-driving shuttle will have on urban mobility across Sunderland.’

Richard Fairchild, chief operations officer at Aurrigo, who have designed and built the shuttle buses, said the project was a ‘significant step forward in research for self-driving vehicles operating on public roads’.

He said: ‘With the arrival of the SAMS shuttle, Sunderland is poised to emerge as a trailblazer in the realm of self-driving transportation, setting a precedent for other cities to follow in the quest for smarter, more efficient mobility solutions.’

The Sunderland scheme is one of seven self-driving transport technology projects from around the UK to receive £81million in joint government and industry funding.

The Sunderland Advanced Mobility Shuttle initiative will test three self-driving, emissions-free Aurrigo Auto-Shuttles. These shuttles will ferry passengers between Sunderland Interchange, Sunderland Royal Hospital, and the University of Sunderland City Campus on public roads

The Sunderland Advanced Mobility Shuttle initiative will test three self-driving, emissions-free Aurrigo Auto-Shuttles. These shuttles will ferry passengers between Sunderland Interchange, Sunderland Royal Hospital, and the University of Sunderland City Campus on public roads

When the funding was announced a year ago, the then Business Secretary Grant Shapps said: ‘In just a few years’ time, the business of self-driving vehicles could add tens of billions to our economy and create tens of thousands of jobs across the UK. 

‘This is a massive opportunity to drive forward our priority to grow the economy, which we are determined to seize.’

Currently, fully driverless cars are not legally permitted in the UK, and a safety driver is required at all times in all autonomous vehicles.

However, the Automated Vehicles Bill is currently going through Parliament and Transport Secretary Mark Harper said in December that self-driving cars could be on British roads in 2026.

In the trial the shuttle buses will be effectively ‘offline’ and not reliant on the 5G network for safety-related tasks as a human ‘safety operator’ will be on board. But in future having secure and efficient connectivity will be vital when the bus is driverless.

Researchers at a test control centre at Newcastle University will test how fast the network operates, cyber security and what happens when the 5G towers develop a fault.



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