DRIVERLESS 'pods' could become a critical part of Oxford's future transport system, a business leader has suggested.

Jeremy Long, chairman of Oxfordshire Local Enterprise Partnership (OxLEP), said the city should take advantage of its links with the car industry and university research to become a leader in the field.

And he claimed driverless technology was a more realistic option than a tram system – previously suggested by consultants URBED in a report prepared for Oxford Civic Society – because the latter was unlikely to be viable.

Supporters of autonomous vehicles argue they could take more private vehicles off the road by allowing people to book their point-to-point journeys in a similar way to a taxi, with technology allowing them to link up with others for shared journeys. The vehicles would 'talk' to each other via digital networks and make more efficient use of road space by driving more closely together and avoiding congested routes.

In an interview with The Oxford Times, Mr Long said: "Tram systems are quite expensive. They are very good people movers in large, dense urban areas like Manchester but one does, to justify them, need a certain density.

"So from the criteria that I am talking about, I am not convinced it is the right solution for Oxford city.

"But I do think the pace of technological change is such that whereas one might have focused in the past on seeing trams as a solution for the capacity problems, it is possible there will be solutions which leapfrog that.

"What we should be doing is looking at those technologies that are alternative solutions, maybe smaller people movers.

"The name pods is used, modules is used and so on – any specific term can give the wrong impression.

"But there will be people movers that become a more flexible and more tolerable form of transport in city centres like Oxford and that is exactly what we should be striving for."

Mr Long is also the Europe chief executive of MTR Corporation, the Hong Kong-based railway company chosen to run London's new Crossrail service.

Referring to research being undertaken into driverless vehicle technology at Oxford University and major employers such as BMW, Mr Long added: "With the links we have here, we have got a cracking combination of expertise in the private sector and particularly in the university.

"We could be at the cutting edge of this. People have this picture of just the Dreaming Spires with Oxford, but what is often not understood is the level of technological innovation

"This is one of a number of areas we should be developing."

His comments come after companies based in the county have established themselves at the forefront of driverless technology in the UK.

Oxford University spin-out company Oxbotica has developed software that uses lasers and cameras to guide a car through urban environments.

It is designed to learn from experience and was tested earlier this year in Milton Keynes.

But Oxfordshire County Council leader Ian Hudspeth said he hoped Oxford could also become a testing area for driverless vehicles.

"They are the future," he said.

"If you go to Terminal 5 at Heathrow Airport, you can already take pods between buildings.

"The very nature of these things also means they can travel closer together, because they work in sync.

"If we are going to find a solution to Oxford's transport problems and if driverless cars can reduce congestion then they have got to be considered.

"And, frankly, we have already got the expertise in Oxfordshire so we should be looking to develop this technology here – not Milton Keynes.

"We should be at the forefront of this."

Profile on Jeremy Long: Page 43