Wheels turning on driverless vehicle trial

06 Jul 2020

The first ever driverless vehicle to mix with traffic on Newcastle’s roads has started ferrying passengers along Wharf Road as part of a three-month trial.

Novocastrians and visitors to the city can now ride the free shuttle service between the Watt Street and Nobbys Beach roundabouts on weekdays between 10am and 2pm.

Running at a speed of just 20km/hr, the vehicle uses an array of sophisticated technology, including 360-degree cameras and input sensors, to avoid cars and objects.

The operation is overseen by an onboard chaperone – a local bus driver who is greeting passengers and answering questions after undergoing training to control the vehicle via a control pad should any issues arise.

Deputy Lord Mayor Declan Clausen at today's launch.

Newcastle’s Deputy Lord Mayor, Declan Clausen, welcomed the first passengers this morning as they ushered in the pilot project.

“I’m delighted to see the trial underway and people riding the city’s first driverless vehicle,” Councillor Clausen said.

“This is another milestone in Newcastle’s smart city journey as we trial the future of automated transport as part of the city’s ‘living lab’ experiment. With the help of Federal Government funding, the project will assess driverless vehicles in mixed traffic conditions and the role they can play in multimodal transport systems.

“Tourists will now be to be able to take in our magnificent harbour and foreshore and return home telling people they were among the first passengers in Australia on a shuttle with nobody at the wheel, or with no steering wheel at all in fact.”

COVID-19 has limited the number of passengers who can ride the shuttle to three at a time; and surface cleaning is being carried out across the day to keep everyone safe.

On the road.

One of the first passengers to ride, Tania Papasotiriou, was pleasantly surprised by the experience.

“It was fantastic,” she said. “I was expecting it to be more bumpy or more slow but it was great, the sensors worked perfectly and it was very smooth and the space is very comfortable inside.

“I’m hoping the community embrace this technology and then we can have more of them in the streets.”

Shuttle operator Keolis Downer invited other Novocastrians to take part in the trial by boarding on Wharf Road just east of the Watt Street roundabout or at Nobbys Beach.

“We encourage Novocastrians to come to Wharf Road and take a ride to experience the future of transportation using this technology,” Keolis Downer Hunter General Manager Mark Dunlop said.

“It’s only a short walk from the light rail on Scott Street and frequent bus services to Customs House.

“We are very interested in the public perception around this technology and will be asking for further feedback after receiving a large number of responses to a survey last November when the shuttle was on show during the Newcastle 500.

“Passengers can be assured of the safety of the vehicle and the training of our onboard chaperones who have additional qualifications to their skills as bus drivers.”

The shuttle completed rigorous safety planning and testing before approval was given to operate on public roads.

The trial is being funded through a $5 million grant awarded to the City under the Federal Government’s Smart Cities and Suburbs Program.

Find out more or take part in a survey at http://newcastlesdriverlessshuttle.com.au

Tech enticed bus driver to chaperone shuttle

State-of-the-art automation technology on the City’s new driverless shuttle prompted Keolis Downer bus driver Glenn Matthews to put his hand up to become a Chaperone.

To upskill for his pioneering career change over the next three months, Glenn and colleagues undertook specialist training in Sydney and at the Hamilton bus depot before applying their newfound knowledge on the shuttle’s Wharf Road loop.

Glenn Mathews (right) with a trainer from the company that made the driverless shuttle.

“It looked like a great project to be a part of and I was interested to see how this tech could be utilised in the transport industry,” said the bus driver of two years.

“Driving a bus and monitoring the driverless shuttle in autonomous mode is very similar in the fact that you need to have situational awareness of other road users at all times.

“The only difference is the steering wheel.

“It has been exciting to learn a new technology and learn how it interacts with pedestrian and vehicular traffic.

“It’s been fantastic to be a part of this project and I can’t wait to have customers on board.”