This is a slightly surreal introduction to the future of public transport. I'm on a specially built track alongside the A45 in Daventry, gently rolling along in a vehicle of similar size and shape to a golf buggy, which is being operated from 20 yards away by a Frenchman called Bouraoui via his mobile.
Futuristic as it may sound, phone-operated buggies are not about to be rolled out across European cities. But, after a few yards, the really clever bit happens. Bouraoui calls out: "OK, you're on your own now!" and, with that, tucks his mobile back into his pocket. And the buggy? It carries on trundling along, the journey now controlled by nothing more than an on-board computer, a laser beam and a video camera. Powerless, I have no choice but to sit tight and see if it gets me to my destination – in this case, the other end of the track.
This could well be a glimpse of the future, as envisaged by Daventry District Council: a transport system driven by computers rather than teams of sullen bus drivers. The council intends to introduce a pilot scheme of driverless "cybercars" in late 2009. While Daventry was once a small Midlands town known only as the broadcasting headquarters of the BBC World Service, its proximity to Milton Keynes has seen the town expand rapidly, and it's predicted almost to double in size over the next 15 years. The council is seizing the chance now to implement forward-looking transport plans that dovetail with their extensive green agenda (a promotional DVD, for example, trumpets their biomass plant which generates electricity from discarded vegetable matter), and getting traditional vehicles off the road is a priority for council leader Chris Millar. "The town centre is set to become a much bigger attraction," he explains, "and our car parks are struggling with demand even now. Also, our buses tend to spend a lot of their time completely empty, which is wasteful."
Their ultimate aim is to build a large network of special pathways for six-seater cybercars that will be stationed at several bays around the town; they'll be available to take you to any other bay at the press of a button, and with the swipe of a smartcard to pay for the journey. "As a developing town," says Millar, "we're fortunate to have the space available to construct the network. Usually houses are built first, and you have to try and implement a transport scheme afterwards." His sales patter for the system is convincing: he reels off a long list of benefits – the way they remove the irritation of having to find and pay for parking, the way you have your own mini-vehicle for the duration of the journey, and their availability on demand and around the clock.
Daventry's residents seem equally fascinated; on a cold, blustery day, local families and schoolchildren have come down to have a go on the three prototypes that are being shown off next to the council offices. "How fast do they go?" shouts one boy, his excitement dampened slightly when informed that, while the finished versions will be bigger and go much faster (an estimate of 30mph is said to be realistic) these only chug along at 5mph. "Would you like a ride?" Millar asks me. How could I refuse? Carrying a cup of tea, I climb into the two-person vehicle along with Laurent Bouraoui, one of the French scientists who developed it. I'm reassured by the presence of an old-fashioned ignition key, but everything else is pretty alien, so Bouraoui guides me through the system. The vehicle is, of course, battery-powered. Two on-board PCs control the steering, braking and acceleration by receiving information from a camera that is pointed at a white line painted along the side of the track; this keeps the vehicle on the straight and narrow, or indeed the curved and wide.
"The data from the camera can be combined with GPS information – just like with sat-nav," explains Laurent, "and this can guide the vehicle across a town." As we set off, I see another cybercar in the distance, packed with four giggling schoolboys and heading towards us, and this prompts my first question: what if we encounter an obstacle? "Ah, well, let me show you," he says, jumping out and running directly in front of our moving vehicle. A laser detects his presence and the car brakes automatically, sending me lurching forward, and spilling hot tea down my front. "Sorry," shouts Laurent. "Obviously the finished version will have seat belts."
Some of the technology employed in the prototype isn't brand new; for example, obstacle-detection systems are already being used in new cars from Mercedes and Lexus. And driverless vehicles have proved popular with passengers across the world for many years – from rail projects such as London's Docklands Light Railway to the Dutch ParkShuttle system that has been used at Amsterdam's Schiphol airport. But these systems were either guided mechanically – i.e. via a track – or by a computer that was programmed to send it on a predetermined, unchangeable route, rather like the old Big Trak toy from the 1980s.
The projects Bouraoui works on in his laboratory in Versailles, however, are trying to get vehicles to manoeuvre themselves based on their surroundings. "The hardest thing," says his colleague, Benjamin Scetbun, "is to get the car to actually make a decision. For instance, it comes across a dead animal in the road – should it turn left, or right? And if it's icy, will it be able to take evasive action if it brakes and the car skids?"
Bouraoui and Scetbun have a dream even beyond the plans for Daventry's cyberlanes: to create driverless cars that can travel at much higher speeds and operate on normal roads alongside other vehicles – a dream that, according to Laurent, might be as little as 20 years away. "Aeroplanes are controlled using only computers," says Laurent, "so why not cars?" Dozens of reasons spring to my mind, not least the unpredictable, erratic nature of the human-operated cars that they'll have to share the road with. But Bouraoui believes that their invention can potentially be programmed to deal with any scenario.
"Computers can react to many situations far more quickly than humans," he says. "As all this tea down my front perfectly demonstrates," I say.
"Well, exactly," he grins.
Once the technology is in place and its safety has been proven, the government of the day will have to be convinced before such vehicles are allowed on the public highway, and for that to happen, the public will need to be convinced that they're a good idea – after all, we tend to be so proud of our supposedly infallible driving skills and protective of our cars that many of us would never dream of surrendering control to a computer.
A Personal Rapid Transit (PRT) system not dissimilar to Daventry's is set to be introduced at Heathrow Terminal 5 next year; this will transport you from the terminal buildings to your car park, thus avoiding a long wait for a courtesy bus – and an even longer wait while everyone else's car parks are visited before yours. Daventry Council will be watching its progress with interest, but Chris Millar is convinced that the potential problems of his own scheme – of which he concedes there are many – are all solvable. "We've thought about vandalism, for example," he says. "If the central computer detects that there's a vandal within the car, it will automatically lock the doors," he laughs, "and just set off straight down a track to the local police station."
A system that improves public services, cuts carbon emissions and detains young offenders? It's no wonder Millar is laughing.
Some ideas that made it... and some that didn't
Park shuttle - hit
These vehicles which find their own way around an asphalt track had a seven-year trial at Amsterdam's Schiphol airport. A plan to extend the tracks had to be put on hold in 2004 because of uncertainty within the airline industry.
Sinclair C5 - miss
The electric C5 became an object of ridicule, thanks to a press launch at which vehicles didn't work properly, unpredictable battery life, and the vulnerability felt by its drivers around heavy-goods vehicles. The factory that had been geared up to produce 200,000 in the first year quickly ceased production, and Sinclair Vehicles went into receivership.
Hydrogen-powered buses - hit
These vehicles are powered by liquid hydrogen which is stored on the roof, and the only by-product they produce is water vapour. Such buses have proved to be successful in Reykjavik, and are being trialled in eight European cities, with more being tested in Beijing and Perth, Australia.
Twike - miss
A Swiss invention, this battery-powered vehicle's eye-watering price tag (some models can cost as much as ¿£30,000) may well be a possible contributor towards its poor sales (fewer than 1,000 worldwide over a period of 20 years).
Cabintaxi - miss
This German project – a transit system consisting of cabs suspended from a raised track – underwent 400,000 miles of testing during the 1970s. There was a plan to implement the scheme in Hamburg, but the project was terminated in 1979 for budgetary reasons.
Maglev - hit
The Maglev – which suspends and propels a vehicle along a track using magnetic force – looks set to be the future of train travel. The Bavarian state government recently signed a contract which will establish high-speed links in the city of Munich.
Segway - hit
The two-wheeled Segway has sold 23,500 units in the three years to September 2006, so this one goes down as a hit. Last year, the city of Chicago signed a 20-year contract to buy Segways for use throughout many of its city departments.