The Times Online of London reports a plan to develop robotic driver-less busses to serve urban areas. The vehicles would be summoned by mobile phone to the location of the passenger and then travel directly to the desired destination. The vehicles would follow magnetic markers in the roadway and feature collision avoidance systems. Trial vehicles are scheduled to be ready in 2007 and a trial system is proposed for the Olympics in 2012.
The challenge facing any type of robotic vehicle that navigates without human input is social acceptance. Robotic cars, trucks , trains and even airplanes are proposed for the near future. Many of these systems are already highly automated. Many airplane passengers don't realize the extent that autopilots actually fly the plane. Some robotic systems are already in use. Airport people mover systems represent the state of robotic trains. The sonic detection system on the back bumper of your luxury car represents the future of ground vehicle accident avoidance systems. The technology is not the problem.
The hinderance of robotic transport systems are social and psychological. People will be less tolerant of any system failures and accidents even if those rates match those of human driven vehicles. Think about train accidents. How many derailments and collisions are avoided by human engineers? Many accidents happen regardless of the presence of a human operator. Granted we don't hear about accidents that don't happen but we're talking public perceptions here. Any failure in the system will be used against it by those that fear the technology or oppose the shifting employment that the robotic revolution represents. Bus drivers, train engineers, cab drivers, airplane pilots, truck drivers and many others are going to be "buggy whipped" in the next 100 years. Their jobs will change or disappear entirely. This is the expected course of advancement. Some of these jobs didn't exist 100 years ago and others are significantly different.
The key understanding that needs to be well communicated and marketed effectively by those interested in the development of robotic transport systems is the creation of the software and control systems. Computers are growing in power everyday. Soon we are at the point where the entire knowledge and experience of 100 top pilots can be programmed into a computer/robotic system. Everything an experienced human pilot knows and feels can be multiplied by 100 or 1000 and applied at lightening speed to any situation that arises in flight. Human pilots can only monitor a limited set of data points. Many of them are internal to their own body. Human pilots are susceptible to sickness. Computers and robotic systems can monitor and respond to far more data points and can easily be backed up and supported by redundant systems. The American Space Shuttle is flown by a computer that has two back up computers.
It's gonna be a great future.