News  /  Travel

UK’s first electric autonomous bus service begins

Published on 2 March 2023

The UK’s first ever fully electric autonomous bus service launched at 10am on Thursday 2 March at Milton Park, giving people the chance to experience the future of green travel for free.

The current route shuttles passengers around Milton Park from the Park’s flexible workspace, the Bee House, to its Milton Feast street food market via stops on Western Avenue and Innovation Drive. Journeys further afield to Didcot Parkway train station are expected to launch later in the year.

Operated by First Bus, the 15-seat, single decker minibus is fully accessible for wheelchair and pushchair users and from Friday 3 March will run every 15 minutes between 7am to 6.30pm Monday to Saturday. A qualified safety driver is on board the bus at all times, able to take control of the vehicle, if required.

The Mi-Link journey planner, developed by Zipabout, has been customised for Milton Park to provide real-time updates on the service’s operation times using every day apps including WhatsApp, the first of its kind to do so. Each bus stop provides details of the route and a QR code to scan for live updates.

After their journey, passengers may be asked to complete a short survey online or be approached in person by one of the University of the West of England (UWE) project team for their views. The aim of the research is to understand people’s experience of the new travel options and how the new technologies can benefit the wider public.

The Mi-Link service is integrated with Milton Park’s bike and e-bikes share scheme – available since 2020 – with bikes located at points around Milton Park and at Didcot Parkway train station. People can find the closest available bikes to them using the Donkey Republic app.

The launch of the new autonomous bus service follows the project’s successful demonstration day on Monday 23 January that took place at the Park’s flexible workspace, the Bee House, attended by local business and political leaders, occupiers, Buses Minister Richard Holden MP and the project’s consortium partners.

Veronica Reynolds, Sustainability and Community Manager at Milton Park, said: “The free autonomous bus service will enable people visiting or working at Milton Park to travel emissions-free to key destinations around the Park, reducing the need to use a car.

“It’s particularly useful for people wanting to grab a tasty lunch at the Milton Feast, available Tuesdays and Thursdays.

“We’re really looking forward to hearing more from our occupiers, visitors and the wider community on their experience of using the autonomous bus, e-bikes and journey planner. Their feedback will be pivotal to shaping the next steps of cutting-edge and sustainable travel in the UK.”

John Birtwistle, Head of Policy at First Bus, said: “Today is a landmark for public transport in this country. This service brings together technologies in zero emission bus design, vehicle movement and travel planning to create a new experience.

“First Bus serves millions of customers in the UK, and we know that so many of our customers take the bus because they care about our planet and reducing their carbon footprint. We’re excited to now offer them an even smarter, greener and quieter way to travel, and we cannot wait to hear some feedback on the new service.”

Cllr Duncan Enright, Oxfordshire County Council’s Cabinet Member for Travel and Development Strategy, said: “Oxfordshire is at the forefront of the developments in autonomous vehicles and we, as a council, are proud to be a partner. Innovation like this has an important role to play in helping us achieve our goal of creating a net-zero transport network by 2040.”

Professor Graham Parkhurst, UWE project lead, said: “We are delighted to have the opportunity to explore with people what they think and feel about using the new transport technologies at Milton Park.

“The information will advance our research on how to travel more sustainably, both at Milton Park and at similar locations across the country.”

Daniel Chick, CTO of Zipabout, said: “We’re very excited to see the launch of this innovative fully electric autonomous bus service, which integrates with Zipabout’s technology to provide passengers with the customised Mi-Link journey planner.

“As part of the service, passengers now have hassle-free access to a variety of tools helping them travel around Milton Park seamlessly. With no cumbersome app to download, they can receive real-time information about all the Mi-Link services through their favourite channels, including WhatsApp or SMS. Using the data and insight from the Zipabout Platform, local authorities and operators can now better understand transport demand in the area, paving the way to helping people get to and around Milton Park more sustainably.”

Funded by a commercial and private sector partnership as well as the UK Department for Transport’s Centre for Connected and Autonomous Vehicles (CCAV) through Innovate UK, Mi-Link has been delivered by an experienced and diverse consortium of organisations.

Led by First Bus, the consortium comprising Fusion Processing Ltd, Oxfordshire County CouncilUniversity of the West of England (UWE Bristol) and Zipabout with Milton Park (as the host location) has together brought this ambitious five-year project into fruition.

Using cutting-edge technology, the Mi-Link project uses Fusion Processing Ltd’s CAVstar® Automated Drive System that combines a range of sensors including radar, LiDAR and optical cameras with state-of-the-art artificial intelligence to control all steering, acceleration and braking without the need for human intervention. As a fully electric and zero-emission service, the Mi-Link bus launch marks a pioneering step for the future of sustainable transport and mobility.

As a renowned innovation and technology cluster, Milton Park proved to be the ideal test-bed site for the Mi-Link project, acting as a living lab for these landmark trials. This follows the success of recent pioneering drone delivery trials that took place at the Park in August 2022, overseen by Oxfordshire County Council. This was part of the HARMONY project which also sought the development of highly sustainable mobility systems – helping to reduce carbon emissions from transport across the Park and further afield.

This aspiration for sustainable connectivity aligns with Milton Park’s 2040 Vision, a blueprint for guiding the Park towards innovation district status, positioning itself as one of the most supportive and flexible locations for science and technology companies to establish and grow.

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