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The future of mobility? In Milton Keynes it’s already here

For a glimpse of what transport everywhere could one day be like, head to Milton Keynes where the council is trialling a fascinating range of new mobility products and services. Andrew Forster took a tour

28 September 2018
The Electric Vehicle Experience Centre
The Electric Vehicle Experience Centre
Steve Hayes (left), the council’s head of transport, and Brian Matthews, its head of transport innovation
Steve Hayes (left), the council’s head of transport, and Brian Matthews, its head of transport innovation
A satisfied customer: Hayes receives his bottle of water from Starship’s robot
A satisfied customer: Hayes receives his bottle of water from Starship’s robot

 

If you go down to Milton Keynes today, you’re sure of a big surprise. Driverless pods, robot goods deliveries, ‘petrol stations’ for electric vehicles –  Milton Keynes has them all, perhaps providing an insight into how towns and cities everywhere will look in the future. This ‘new town’ in Buckinghamshire, which developed from the late 1960s to house population overspill from London, has always been big on innovative transport thinking. It is the exemplar of a town built for mass motorisation: low density development, grid layout streets, endless roundabouts, and the segregated Redways network of paths for pedestrians and cyclists. Yet all of this proved to be a bit of an intellectual cul-de-sac as far as British town planning goes.

Brian Matthews, Milton Keynes Council’s head of transport innovation, says the town’s unique design helps explain why the council is now pioneering so many new mobility products and services. “When we set off as a unitary authority [in 1997] we struggled to meet the agenda that was being set by the Government of promoting public transport, walking and cycling. It’s not that we didn’t want to do it but we found we were up against it in a way because of some of the infrastructure we had to work with. [We’re] a city of the car: lots of roads, lots of capacity, lots of car parking spaces, not good bus operating conditions, and low density development, which often means walking and cycling distances are quite long.

“We thought about a plan B – how do we work with what we’ve got to make it more sustainable? It started with the council developing a low carbon strategy, so that started us thinking, ‘well cars are the biggest sources of carbon, how do we make them more sustainable?’” The answer was electric vehicles. From that, the council’s appetite for all sorts of other mobility innovations flowed. 

Matthews and Steve Hayes, the council’s head of transport, are going to give LTT a tour of the innovations in the town. We start outside the council offices where Matthews’ plug-in hybrid car is taking a charge from one of the hundreds of charging points in the town. Milton Keynes is ‘electric city’, he says, but we’ll discuss electric vehicles properly later. 

Right now they want to show me something a little less obvious, pointing to a sensor on a lighting column. More than 2,000 sensors have been installed in the town – about 1,800 overseeing car parking spaces and a further 500 overseeing all major junctions. The equipment was developed by Vivacity Labs and installed last spring with the help of £1.7m from Innovate UK, the Government’s innovation agency. Each sensor contains a camera and a processor, and artificial intelligence is used to detect and classify road users, including pedestrians and cyclists. Anonymised data feeds then present information such as counts of vehicles along a road. Vivacity’s system also features predictive analytics to project traffic flow forward.

“They’ve got a very comprehensive dashboard that brings out the information from the junctions so you can see in real-time the typical profile of traffic by vehicle class and you can see if something happens, what the impact is at that junction and all the surrounding junctions,” says Matthews. 

With the Innovate UK-funded trial having come to an end, Matthews says the council is in negotiations with Vivacity about the long-term use of the system.

Hayes explains some of the possible applications. “It can detect what type of vehicle is approaching, so you could feed that potentially into urban traffic management and control [systems], for example to give buses priority, without needing loops in the road, which are notoriously unreliable in terms of being dug up or stop working.

“We’ve been thinking about the implications for traffic modelling as well, because what it’s doing is using the artificial intelligence to generate some real-time traffic modelling, so if a junction gets congested or blocked, it can predict where the traffic’s going to go.”

The sensors also open up new possibilities for the council’s parking contracts – the council this month commenced new contracts with Egis (parking technology) and Indigo (enforcement).

“We’re working with Vivacity to understand how their system could help give us more efficient and effective enforcement,”?says Hayes. “Legislation requires that traffic wardens visit illegally parked vehicles and issue tickets, but the sensor system might help identify where there are vehicles that haven’t paid so wardens can be deployed more effectively.”

The town’s Business Improvement District is launching an app next month using Vivacity data to show users where there is good parking availability in the town centre.

It’s not only Vivacity’s sensors that are changing parking management in Milton Keynes. Hayes explains that the council has just become the first authority in the UK to run with a ‘multi-vendor platform’ for parking. “At present people can pay for parking either via cash or app (Ringo). In the future this won’t be constrained to Ringo. Other pay-by-phone suppliers may wish to sell parking in Milton Keynes, or a cinema might sell you a parking space with your cinema ticket, or a restaurant might sell you a space with your booking. Connected vehicles would be able to pay for themselves, or the manufacturer of the vehicle on the owner’s behalf. It could be very disruptive to the parking industry and we are working with the Transport Systems Catapult (based in Milton Keynes) to understand how the eco-system may develop.”

Pod potential

We drive down to Milton Keynes railway station, which is otherwise a brisk 20-minute walk from the town’s retail centre. As if on cue, some autonomous pods appear on the pedestrian plaza, Station Square. They’re actually being driven today as part of a training exercise.

Trials of autonomous pod began in Milton Keynes in 2016 as part of the UK Automotive Council’s LUTZ (Low carbon urban transport zone) Pathfinder project. The two-seater pods were manufactured by Coventry-based automotive engineering firm RDM Group. The pods used cameras, LIDAR and radar to navigate and monitor their surroundings and Matthews explains that the initial trial was to see if all the technology actually worked. 

A follow-on trial has been run through the three-year UK Autodrive project to promote connected and autonomous vehicles, focused on Milton Keynes and Coventry. RDM again supplied the pods but this time they are four-seaters.

The pods operate on footways rather than the carriageway and are limited to under 10mph (their top speed is 15mph) to minimise the risk of conflicts with pedestrians. “We have developed Traffic Regulation Orders to allow the pods to operate on the footways,” says Matthews. “Technically a car can run on here but we ban cars and allow pods. We might create dedicated lanes for them to speed up in the future.” 

Passenger trials of the pods will take place before the Autodrive project draws to a close at the end of October. “We’ll recruit people to be part of it, give them access to the App to order the vehicle and we’ll see what the demand is,” says Matthews. The pods will operate in autonomous mode in some places but a driver will have to control the pods on footways that are not yet cleared for autonomous operation because of things such as parking machines, bollards and trees.

The pods are operated by Aurrigo, an offshoot of manufacturer RDM. Says Matthews: “We went to the market to procure an operator – we asked [local bus operator] Arriva and we asked taxi companies. [They were a] little bit nervous – and RDM, Aurrigo, put in a compelling bid.” 

Although Autodrive is coming to an end, this doesn’t spell the end for pods in Milton Keynes. A follow-on Innovate UK project called SWARM involves RDM Group, the University of Warwick’s Warwick Manufacturing Group, and Milton Keynes Council. “This will upscale the intelligence of the vehicles and that will be running to late-2019 at least, by which time we’ve perhaps made a decision on whether we keep them here,” says Matthews.

The SWARM project will require ten vehicles in the town (RDM’s total fleet is 25), of which five will have enhanced intelligence. “They’ll have the ability to communicate with each other and one vehicle will be the master vehicle and control all the others,” says Matthews. “It’s all to drive down the operating costs because if you get one of these [acting] as the control centre you don’t have to have a big control room. If you have to reposition them, then one will be used as a marshalling pod.”

Another project could see a trial of pods in passenger service: Milton Keynes is part of a consortium that has just  submitted a bid to the Government’s Connected and Autonomous Vehicles round 4 funding round. 

Trials are one thing, but does Matthews believe autonomous pods have a long-term role providing mobility in the town? “It’s great at the moment because it’s a novelty and people welcome it,” he says. “We’ll see if they use it every day and pay a little bit of money for it, then we’ll learn whether it’s something we can keep.” 

One route that has been mooted for pods is to connect the railway station with the shopping district but Matthews is unsure if this is where the demand lies. “I’m not sure there’s a huge demand for that and it can be met by the Hopper bus service anyway [the £1 single ticket available on all of Arriva’s buses between the station and the shopping district]. I think it’s more likely to be from the railway station to businesses as a visitor, or somebody in a business saying, ‘I need to go and see Fred in another building.’ 

“They’ve also got potential because we are putting more housing in Central Milton Keynes over the next ten-15 years – the housing sites are at the end of the city – twice the distance from the railway station to the council offices. A pod could be the ideal vehicle to do that [journey] – you can walk or cycle, of course, but it gives you another option.”

Rethinking public transport

While we’re discussing the pods, an electric bus pulls up at a stop outside the railway station. A fleet of eight vehicles were introduced in 2014 on Arriva’s Route 7 operating north-south from Wolverton to Bletchley via Central Milton Keynes. At each end of the route the bus takes a charge inductively while sitting over a charging plate. At the time of launch, this was the first large-scale trial of inductively charged buses in the UK. 

“The buses get back to base with their batteries about 30 per cent full and then charge up overnight plugged in,”  explains Matthews. “They come out with about 80-90 per cent of the charge, so you’re protecting the battery. If you overcharge them or let them run down it affects the battery life, therefore operating them charged between 80 and 90 per cent protects the battery.

“The economics of the operation are that we’ve had to increase the number of buses on the route by one vehicle to compensate for the dwell time at the charge points. But that’s compensated by the lower operating costs because the fuel is so much cheaper.” 

The upfront capital cost of the vehicles is still considerably more than their diesel equivalent. The Government has awarded the council a further £1.75m for a further fleet of electric buses and discussions are underway with Arriva about how this will be used. Says Matthews: “Arriva are not as keen on a ‘big’ bus so [we’re] exploring potential demand responsive transport mini-vans with a network of supporting wireless charging.”

Plenty more public transport innovations lie on the horizon. The council’s policy documents refer to a new form of public transport dubbed ‘micro-metro’. Matthews explains what this is all about.

“That’s looking at the potential of a new form of mass transit that could be developed in the next 15-20 years that doesn’t rely on rails or bus lanes. We’ve just kicked off a study with consultants David Lock Associates, ITP [Integrated Transport Planning] and the University of Cambridge to look at that in more detail.”

The idea, he explains, is similar to the rubber-tyred Advanced Very Rapid Transit (AVRT) concept championed for Cambridge by John Miles, the University of Cambridge’s Arup/Royal Academy of Engineering research professor in transitional energy strategies. AVRT appears to have been rejected by councils in Cambridge but Miles is part of the team looking at its application to Milton Keynes.

“John’s a good friend of ours at the council, he lives in Milton Keynes, I see him every other day,” says Matthews. “He’s working on the AVRT micro metro for Milton Keynes to see if the Cambridge idea – we’re not saying we’re going to do the same as Cambridge, we’re not going to tunnel, I don’t think – could the same principles be adapted to Milton Keynes? 

“It could be autonomous in restricted space and operate at a high-speed, which makes it more attractive to more users, especially park-and-ride. And could you then integrate it into developments that we build at the edge of the city? After all, Milton Keynes is going to double in size.

“Could something like that fit in Milton Keynes, could it fit in Cambridge, could it fit in Oxford?” he says. “Because all three cities are working together on the Oxford-Milton Keynes-Cambridge arc idea and we’ve been set a challenge by the National Infrastructure Commission to sort out the ‘last mile’ transport [in each city].”

Micro metro is for the long-term. More immediately,  there are developments afoot on demand responsive transport. Says Hayes: “Many of our residential estates are quite difficult to serve by bus because of their layout – lots of cul-de-sacs – whereas if you’ve got a demand responsive minibus-type service, which a number of companies are looking at now, that could complement a fixed route bus route or rapid transit routes in the future quite nicely.” 

An announcement of a commercial DRT venture in Milton Keynes may be imminent. Meantime, the council has just invited potential suppliers to an engagement event to look into DRT applications, including whether it could replace some subsidised conventional bus services.

Mobility as a Service (MaaS) is also a “hot topic” for the council, says Hayes. “We are in advanced discussions with a company keen to work with us to implement MaaS in the area and should be in position to launch a scheme in 2019.” The council held a forum this summer to bring local transport operators – bus companies, taxi operators, bike hire, car hire – up to speed on the MaaS concept. 

A smart ticketing platform is also under development. Says Hayes: “We’re bidding to the South East Midlands Local Enterprise Partnership (SEMLEP) for Local Growth Fund grant to deliver a multi-modal smart ticketing solution – initially for Milton Keynes but one which we could roll out to other areas of the England’s Economic Heartland [that stretches from Swindon in the west to Cambridgeshire in the east]. We’re not going to invent something from scratch but have been talking to authorities with existing platforms about sharing those.”

Robot deliveries

As we leave the pods, Hayes arranges something using his smartphone for our next innovation – a robot goods delivery! In April, Starship Technologies teamed up with the Co-op to launch a robot delivery service in the Monkston residential area of the city. Using an app, residents can order from a choice of 250 items in the shop and have their purchases delivered to their door by a four-wheeled robot. Hayes has ordered a bottle of water to demonstrate the system.  

En route to collect our delivery, we spot a parked Range Rover that is part of the UK Autodrive project, testing level 4 autonomy. Matthews pulls in to have a quick chat with the research team. “Jaguar Land Rover are wanting to test with us car share – premium car share,” he later explains, as an aside. “There might be a sector [of the population] who want to use a JLR premium car but can’t afford one, but can afford to rent one a couple of times a week.”

Back on the road, Hayes’ app notifies him that the bottle of water has arrived at its delivery addresss. We’re a few minutes away but fortunately the robot has the good grace to wait for us. After inputting a code to his app, the robot’s lid opens and – voilà! –  we have our bottle of water. Soon it’s returning along the footway to its base, a shop unit next door to the Co-op store. We’re heading there too.

Starship was set up in 2014 by two of the co-founders of communications software Skype. The company’s initial UK trials were in London with online takeaway delivery firm Just Eat. Then came the opportunity to work with the Co-op in Milton Keynes and Starship has thrown all its UK resource into this. The service operates from 9am to 8pm seven days a week. Users are charged £1 per delivery. If the amount of goods requested exceeds the capacity of one robot then another is sent at no additional cost. By the summer the business was seeing about half a dozen orders in the morning, a lull in the lunchtime, and 20-plus in the evening. 

When Starship sets up in an area, a human takes the robots out to map the area. After that, the robots’ day-to-day operations are described as 99 per cent autonomous. A human oversees them at all times from Starship’s operations centre in Tallinn, Estonia. So, for instance, if the robot comes upon an obstacle, such as an overhanging bush, it will stop and the operator will make a decision whether it is safe to proceed.

Signs in the Monkston neighbourhood declare that this is a ‘robot delivery area’. 

“What we’ve agreed with Starship is to run the system for a period to evaluate its capabilities, issues, and public reaction, so we can develop a set of operating protocols,” says Matthews. “We’re requiring Starship to provide weekly reports on how it’s operating, incidents, learnings, and we’ll put it all together and then look to develop guidance. I think Starship have ambitions to use that to stimulate national guidelines so they can operate in other cities.”

Is the idea that Starship will eventually cover the whole of Milton Keynes? “I’m sure that’s Starship’s ambition,” says Matthews. “Subject to protocols and everybody being happy, then we’ll have a discussion about how that might be achieved. Because one of the concerns we have is we don’t want all the Redways flooded with robots when they’re for cyclists and pedestrians as well. So we need to understand what is the optimum number of vehicles we can assimilate.

“One thing we’ve got to think about is should we licence it? Because we don’t potentially want a free-for-all. We’re reasonably comfortable with Starship, we can see they’re a professional organisation. But you could get some [operators] who are not so professional and just jump in and that could spoil it for everyone, spoil it for the city. So that’s the idea behind the protocols – you could potentially have a licence to operate in Milton Keynes if you sign up to these protocols.”

Matthews is reassured by user surveys suggesting the robots are more likely to replace car trips to the shop than walking trips. He thinks they could offer other potential benefits to the town. “We have regular meetings with Starship to stimulate discussions about uses. Library services was a Starship idea. Social care applications was our idea. Ringway, our main [highways] contractor, is working with Starship to use the robots to detect outages in lighting columns. And they can detect potholes. The police are interested in them as mobile incident devices because they’ve got all the surveillance equipment on.”

Scatter gun, or selective?

I’m wondering if the council says ‘yes’ to every approach it receives to test an innovation, or if it is more discerning. Matthews smiles. “I think I’ve got this personality trait where I try to say yes at the beginning to most things just to learn a little bit more, but then we have to [sometimes] say, ‘Well actually that doesn’t fit with us, it’s a great idea, don’t take this to mean we don’t think it’s good.’ 

“What I have to be careful about is I’m a public servant and I’m charged to deliver the objectives and policies of the council. I can’t go off on a whim and just do something I’m personally interested in – much as people think I do that anyway! I think I’ve got a reasonable view of that having done the job for 20 years, so I’ve got a fairly good idea of what’s relevant, what’s not relevant.”

So what isn’t relevant? “I think we’re having to say a lot of ‘nos’ to some of the parking ideas, not necessarily because they’re bad ideas, it’s just they don’t fit in with what we want to do with parking. Some of them [the proposals] are to make parking really easy.”

Sometimes Matthews will suggest that a promoter should test their idea on private land first. In other instances, he passes the idea to the Transport Systems Catapult. The Catapult and the council collaborate on a number of projects. “They [the Catapult] have a particular ilk of person – technologists, industry [backgrounds] – and, hopefully I’m not being rude, they haven’t a clue how cities work sometimes, so we try to ground them into the real problems of the city.”

Electric boulevards

Our next stop is to see an electric vehicle charging station – the equivalent of a petrol station – being built on the edge of the town close to junction 14 of the M1. The facility is expected to open this autumn and will feature eight rapid chargers (50kW) capable of charging a vehicle in around 20 minutes and four superchargers (350kW) that can charge a vehicle in five minutes. The rapid chargers have been funded by the Government’s Office for Low Emission Vehicles. The superchargers are privately funded by Ionity, who are backed by car manufacturers VW, BMW, and Audi. Another EV charging station is planned for Central Milton Keynes, says Matthews.  

This is just the latest demonstration of the town’s support for electric vehicles. “We’re running just under double the national average of electric vehicle ownership in Milton Keynes,” he says. “We’ve been at it for four to five years getting the infrastructure in place, we’ve been highly visible promoting it.”

The town now has 300 7kW fast chargers, and 56 rapids, soon to rise to 64. The council is also installing residential EV charging points. “We’ve got this initiative called MK Promise where we will with best endeavours put a charge point as near to where you live [as possible]. That’s been a long and tortuous process but we’ve just had our first installation,” Matthews explains.

Vehicles that qualify for the Government’s plug-in car grant can benefit from free parking in council spaces. “We don’t give the premium bays [for free] because we don’t want EVs clogging up bays that are programmed to be high turnover,” says Matthews. “So 15,000 [out of roughly 21,000] bays are available for electric cars to park for free.”

The Electric Vehicle Experience Centre is our final destination. Located in the centre:mk shopping centre, it’s a brand-neutral showroom, the only place of its kind in the country. The centre gives the public free advice about EVs, the opportunity for free 20 minute test drives, and even a loan of a vehicle for four or seven days, with prices starting at £50. A fleet of 50 vehicles is available to choose from, provided by seven manufacturers: Kia, Renault, BMW, Volkswagen, Volvo, Mitsubishi, and Nissan. The fleet is refreshed every six months, so the latest models are always available.

The centre was set up with funding from the Government’s Office for Low Emission Vehicles under a five-year deal and had its first birthday in July. It is operated by Chargemaster, which also has the council’s contract to manage electric vehicle charging points in the town. 

Says Matthews: “We [the experience centre] don’t sell cars, we just advise and give information to try and break down barriers. There’s no better way to do that than by letting people experience things without the pressure of a sale. If you’re willing, they can make an introduction to the dealer for you [but] they’re on no commission, so they’ve got no vested interest in what you then do.”

The innovative council

Over a coffee at the end of a fascinating day, Matthews and Hayes talk about some of the wider issues that all this innovation poses. “I could get a council visit to talk about electric vehicles every week,” says Matthews. “We try to do that because part of the remit from Government is ‘we’re investing in Milton Keynes, we want this disseminated’. So I’ll quite happily do that.” 

Councillors wholeheartedly support the ventures, he says. “Our political leaders expect innovation, they fully support what we’re trying to do, and that’s cross-party [the council is no overall control]. They see it as enhancing the reputation of Milton Keynes and it leads to other things – jobs created by Starship, Chargemaster are moving their whole factory and operations from Luton to Milton Keynes on the back of ‘this is electric city’ and so 300 jobs are created here.”

Hayes says the innovations are redefining the activities of local authority transport departments and requiring new skillsets. “A good example of this is we had a guy whose job was to do traffic monitoring, so he would go out and put loops in the road and organise all the traffic counts – all those kind of things. He left us about six months ago and rather than replace him like-for-like, we sort of thought, ‘Well, hang on, this kind of role is going to change very much in the future given all the sensor technology and development in this area.’”

Adds Matthews: “I think the council is starting to bring through cohorts of talented graduates and apprentices that are not traditional transport planners. It is shaking the tree a bit and I don’t think that’s a bad thing. It’s not about getting rid of people, I’m not saying kick them out and bring new in – it’s about retraining and re-energising, this is a positive thing.”

Hayes says the very nature of the council’s role in transport is changing. “A lot of it these days is more about working in collaboration with suppliers. It’s not necessarily specifying what we want and expecting someone to deliver for us, it’s working with these companies to develop and design solutions for Milton Keynes.”  

A free to attend conference to mark the end of the UK Autodrive connected and autonomous vehicle (CAV) project is being held at the Transport Systems Catapult in Milton Keynes on 11 October. To register, visit: http://www.ukautodrive.com/events/international-cav-conference/ 

 
 
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