Christchurch enters the second phase of autonomous vehicle trial with deployment of locally designed and developed autonomous shuttle vehicle

27 June, 2019

We are increasingly hearing about the efficiency of deploying autonomous vehicles, but in practice moving to an ummanned automated world is not always an easy journey. At Christchurch International airport in New Zealand there is an ongoing Autonomous Vehicle (AV) trial on private roads within the airport boundary and this week it has reached a second stage with the introduction of New Zealand's first Smart Shuttle.

It is over two years since the airport and HMI Technologies first agreed on the New Zealand based and funded trial, which is focused on finding answers to key questions about how such vehicles could operate. The trial first commenced in early 2017 following the arrival of a single French Navya 15-person shuttle for testing. The vehicle is fully autonomous, has no steering wheel and is electric powered and has been used within the airport campus, starting on private roads with no public present.

Autonomous electric vehicles are no longer just science fiction and will be part of our future. "They are coming ready or not and I'd rather be ready," said Christchurch's Mayor Lianne Dalziel at the launch of the trial. "Christchurch has become a city of opportunity … a place where anything is possible. The significance of attracting this project to Christchurch at this time cannot be over-stated. This is an incredibly exciting time in our history," she added.

This initial stage of the trial has helped the partners to better understand the infrastructure and its operating requirements, understand the human/technology interface and to build the safety case for autonomous vehicles on the airport campus.

A second vehicle, the locally designed and developed ohmio LIFT marks a further development in the trial as a potential first-mile last-mile strategy in the airport context. Christchurch International officials say the second phase of the trial will allow the New Zealand vehicle to be proven and licenced. Like the original vehicle, the Kiwi Smart Shuttle can carry up to 15 adults.

The vehicles are designed to operate on predetermined repetitive routes. The system created allows vehicles to be deployed quickly, with a mapping capability which means the vehicle can learn its course and improve performance using artificial intelligence [AI] to repeat the charted course over and over.

Multiple ohmio vehicles can also "platoon" forming a connected convoy, which makes them a scaleable solution, responding to demand to operate as an efficient and safe virtual tram.

"Collaborating with ohmio means we have a technology partner and producer which is able to take the learnings from the trial to date and then adapt and enhance the vehicle to New Zealand needs. The focus of the trial remains on autonomy rather than a particular vehicle, and we look forward to continuing to explore how autonomous shuttles might play a part in our future at our airport," said Michael Singleton, general manager corporate affairs, Christchurch International airport upon confirmation of the partnership.

The formal deployment of the new vehicles this week will mark the continuation of the testing and learning development stage to understand the capabilities of the newer equipment. This will continue on private roads within the airport campus, but with the long-term aim of moving to public roads once the safety case has been made and all regulatory approvals are in place.

While an airport is a great testing ground, the Ohmio automation solution is an ecosystem including the vehicle, infrastructure and management. It believe that while a vehicle is the method by which most people will interact with the AV transport system, the infrastructure will play a large role in supporting this functionality through systems such as charging stations, localisation beacons, bus stops, and communication nodes.

While the management component will inform vehicles of which charging stations to visit when their batteries require charging, what routes to take, which passengers to pick up and where to drop them off. Rather than purely focusing on the development of the vehicle, Ohmio is also focusing on how their vehicles will fit within a smart airport or smart city ecosystem.