Could driverless vehicles arrive on Wearside by 2025?

A self-driving bus is set to be on roads in the region from next year as part of a pilot aimed at proving the vehicles can be commercially sustainable by 2025.

The specially designed shuttle bus to carry members of the public in Sunderland is being rolled out from next year.

The project is one of two shortlisted for a share of £84 million in funding to develop driverless vehicles in Sunderland.

Other self-driving vehicle projects awarded funding are based in Belfast, Cambridge and across Solihull and Coventry. All the schemes will be expected to demonstrate they are capable of sustainable commercial services by 2025.

A demonstration was held on Wearside to show off the new technology Credit: ITV Tyne Tees

The technology for the bus shuttle, which is a Sunderland City Council project, is well advanced, now passengers need to be persuaded to get on board.

The route will transport passengers on public roads between Sunderland Interchange, the Sunderland Royal Hospital, and the University of Sunderland city campus.

While safety drivers will always be onboard, the project will develop and demonstrate a cyber secure remote supervision protocol, an important step towards commercial deployment. 

Liz St Louis, director of Smart Cities at Sunderland City Council, said: "There's a long way to go in public acceptance and adoption of these kinds of vehicles, so we will be doing a lot of work in the run up. In 2024, we will definitely see [them], we intend to run for a full year, two of these shuttles on a continuous loop, every 15 minutes."

“We’re hugely optimistic about a technology-fuelled future, powered by local expertise, right here in Sunderland.”

  • Mark Cracknell, Programme Director at Zenzic said by 2025, "real vehicles will move real people" in our communities very soon.

Also in Sunderland, an HGV has been converted to driverless for a trial transporting parts from the Vantec warehouse to Nissan, a journey that is made 200 times a day.

A standard vehicle has been refitted with new technology, including a radar sensor, cameras, and lydar on the vehicle. Engineers say there are "no blind spots" which ensures humans and objects around the vehicle can be detected at all times.

At the moment, with a safety driver on board, the electric lorry drives itself on site, overseen by an operator two miles away in a control room. Vantec is now buying more HGVs, to trial whether the operator can oversee three vehicles at once.

The electric vehicles at Vantec are controlled by a specialist hub Credit: ZENZIC

When asked if the new technology is replacing jobs held by humans, Vantec's Martin Kendal declined to agree, saying more jobs would be added to the business. "It's not about bringing in a technology to remove a human being, it's about bringing in the technology to bring in more human beings to grow the business.

"If I can't recruit a lorry driver, I can't go after more business, I can't deliver what I'm supposed to do to my partner."

Business Secretary Grant Shapps said: "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. The support we are providing today will help our transport and technology pioneers steal a march on the global competition by turning their bright ideas into market-ready products sooner than anyone else.”

The Government says it is committed to introducing legislation that will enable the safe use of self-driving vehicles on UK roads.

Inside one of the driverless buses pitched for Sunderland Credit: ITV Tyne Tees

Forecasts predict that by 2035, 40% of new UK car sales will have self-driving capabilities, with a total market value for connected and automated mobility worth £41.7 billion to the UK. This could create nearly 40,000 skilled jobs in connected and automated vehicle (CAV) technology.

Want a quick and expert briefing on the biggest news stories? Listen to our latest podcasts to find out What You Need To know...