Northern Ireland’s first self-driving shuttles are coming to Belfast

1 Feb 2023

Image: © Lev Karavanov/

The Harlander project aims to bring a fully automated shuttle service to the city’s Harbour Estate, as part of a larger initiative to push sustainable transport in the UK.

Northern Ireland’s first self-driving shuttle service is set to be launched in Belfast next year through an £11m project.

The service will be launched at Belfast Harbour, providing connectivity between the Harbour Estate from the Titanic Quarter railway station to the Catalyst Science Park in Queen’s Island.

The project – called Harlander – is being led by Belfast Harbour, alongside industry partners such as REE Automotive, Angoka, BT and Horiba Mira.

Harlander has been given £5.5m of the total funding from the government agency Innovate UK, which is working with the Centre for Connected and Autonomous Vehicles to invest £41.5m in seven innovation projects across the UK.

Funding for this UK scheme is being matched by industry members, giving a total pot of roughly £84m to help deliver sustainable commercial services by 2025.

UK business secretary Grant Shapps said the self-driving vehicle sector could add “tens of billions” to the economy and create tens of thousands of jobs.

“This is a massive opportunity to drive forward our priority to grow the economy, which we are determined to seize,” Shapps said. “The support we are providing today will help our transport and technology pioneers steal a march on the global competition, by turning their bright ideas into market-ready products sooner than anyone else.”

When operational, the service will transport residents, visitors and employees to venues such as Titanic Belfast and the Metropolitan College. Belfast Harbour said the Harbour Estate gets more than 5m annual visits, including 1.5m ferry and cruise ship passengers.

Belfast Harbour people and corporate services director, Mike Dawson, said Belfast’s innovation district has “enormous potential for growth” and that the project can help build an “innovation eco-system that brings investment into the economy”.

“Electrified connected and automated vehicles offer a route to provide a clean, efficient, and affordable public transport that aligns with net zero targets and provides connectivity to other modes of transport,” Dawson said.

Self-driving highs and lows

The tech behind self-driving cars has advanced significantly in recent years, causing regulators to take steps to prepare for their arrival. Last April, the UK revealed planned changes to its highway code to pave the way for fully self-driving cars to hit the roads.

This was followed by the European Commission sharing plans to allow 1,500 fully driverless vehicles per car model to be registered and sold in a member state each year.

However, some companies within the the automotive sector have struggled to make self-driving cars a reality. In June, self-driving car business Cruise became the first to secure approval to operate a commercial taxi service using driverless cars in California. But this service faced examples of technical issues.

Last November, an activist hedge fund urged Google parent company Alphabet to cut back on its Other Bets division, which includes autonomous vehicle company Waymo.

The hedge fund said enthusiasm for self-driving cars “has collapsed” and noted that Ford and Volkswagen pulled the plug on their self-driving car ventures.

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Leigh Mc Gowran is a journalist with Silicon Republic