Race for driverless cars is on, even if it is only at walking pace

Going for growth: a British minnow takes on the big fish of the automotive and technology worlds

The mist is rising over Canary Wharf as a driverless car trundles up and down a cycle path on the other side of the Thames. The steering wheel is moving, but the man behind it sits with his hands on his lap. It is a little unnerving, with the river is only metres to the left. But only a little. The car is moving so slowly a jogger overtakes it with ease.

A man on his mobile walks into the path of the car and it jerks to a stop, with a good three metres to spare. He moves out of the way and the car resumes its leisurely pace.

Oxbotica, the small company running the trial, is keen to point out that its speciality is the software. The car itself is cramped and draughty, with plastic windows only recently added for the winter months. It was once a Twizy, Renault’s tiny electric car-quad bike hybrid. Engineers at Oxbotica cut it in half and widened it to make room for two passengers and a large computer in the back. A big red stop button sits on the dashboard.

The car’s glacial progress is a reminder that driverless vehicles are a technology where popular imagination has rapidly overtaken what is possible at the moment and indeed, some warn, what might ever be possible.

Graeme Smith, chief executive of Oxbotica, admits that “it’s a strange product. It’s probably one of the most talked about innovations in automotive for the last couple of decades and yet it doesn’t really exist yet. So there’s a real race to get there.”

It is fast becoming a crowded race. In the United States, Google, Apple and Uber are all investing heavily in driverless cars. That has forced the vehicle manufacturers to step up their efforts. In Britain, smaller players are in the same game, a description that applies to the Coventry-based RDM, a family-owned supplier of car parts to companies including Jaguar Land Rover, with revenues approaching £9 million. That business helps to fund its forays into autonomous vehicles.

David Keene, chief executive of RDM, says: “If there’s one thing that Britons are good at, it’s inventing things. If there’s one thing we’re not good at, it is capitalising on that invention. We end up getting bought out by overseas companies. So we’re just seeing a traditional model of the plucky Brits who come up with these fantastic ideas battling against all the odds to get things to market. The only difference is that, this time around, the plucky Brits are supported by a really good government strategy.”

That strategy includes research programmes to bring driverless vehicles on to UK roads and footpaths. The government has pledged £100 million to invest alongside industrial partners over the next five years and has nominated Greenwich, Milton Keynes, Bristol and Coventry as hubs to conduct research. By experimenting in cities, researchers hope to tackle some of the practical issues that face driverless cars, such as how to ensure risk-averse vehicles do not get trapped interminably at busy junctions.

For now, RDM is focusing its efforts on non-road-going vehicles. It is building 40 autonomous pods, which will be arriving in the pedestrianised areas of Milton Keynes in June next year. Although they will have a dedicated route, pedestrians will be able to jump on them at any point along that route.

The company is in talks about building autonomous pods for vast shopping centres in the Middle East and on university campuses. Mr Keene also sees potential in airports, even for beer companies to pay for pods to take people home from the pub.

A particular challenge for RDM and its peers is being an early entrant into a market is that it is constantly changing as people discover new applications for the technology, or as the technology itself moves on. So the Shropshire-based Gobotix is taking a different approach, applying autonomous technology in other settings while the market develops. It is testing navigation and control technology on board trains to solve signalling issues, and has developed a system whereby motorists could remotely control their car from a few metres away. This, for example, could be used by wheelchair users who cannot access their vehicles when other vehicles park too close.

Ben Davis, Gobotix’s founder, says: “It’s an incredibly useful but very simple piece of technology. Most vehicles now are fitted with all the technology required in order to do that, they just don’t have the software loaded on to them that allows them to be controlled via a remote app.” Gobotix hopes to provide the technology on a not-for-profit basis and says that it should be available within a year.

However, Dr Davis agrees with Dr Smith that it is hard to say how advanced the market is in terms of fully autonomous vehicles. “There’s a lot of smoke and mirrors around what is going on in other companies. It seems that anybody can make quite a good video as to what they say their vehicle can do. It’s quite hard to infer whether it’s actually doing that.

“That leaves the impression that the technology is ready and available and that causes problems, because it obviously isn’t, because we’d all be seeing completely driverless cars going around, not ones with safety drivers.”

In Greenwich, Oxbotica’s safety driver takes over whenever the vehicle leaves the loop it has mapped out that morning. Dr Smith says: “In this type of environment here, the vehicle will work flawlessly, but there’s times the safety steward might take over. If they can see around a corner there’s a group of kids about to emerge, you might intervene. Just like when you’re a passenger in a car, maybe you’ll anticipate things that the driver may not have seen.”

Sitting behind the wheel like a nervous backseat driver in a car moving at a crawl is not the experience of driverless cars many were hoping for. As Oxbotica’s test vehicle slows to one mile an hour to execute a painstaking U-turn on the cycle path, a future of busy roads filled with autonomous vehicles feels a long way off.

Five steps to drivers’ taking hands off the steering wheel
There are five levels of autonomous driving, from the adaptive cruise control seen in cars today, to hands off (where the driver is in the car but vigilant), to eyes off, to brain off and through to empty vehicles driving themselves (Josephine Moulds writes). While the industry is making tentative steps in level two, there is a long way to go to get to level five. And it has taken a long time to get even where we are today.


David Keene, of RDM, is aiming his vehicles at pedestrianised areas in Milton KeynesTimes Newspapers

Graeme Smith, chief executive of Oxbotica, was involved in introducing products such as adaptive cruise control to regular cars during his career at Ford.

“Oxbotica hasn’t started from the position of adaptive cruise control and trying to make it work in more environments,” he says. “We’ve started out in more of a lower-speed environment. What some of the car companies have said to us is they’re already 90 per cent of the way there; they see us as providing the extra 9.9999 per cent to make it fully autonomous.”

Neil Fulton, programme director at the Transport Systems Catapult, a state-backed centre, says that carmakers are investing heavily in this area. “Over the course of the next five to ten years, we are going to see increasing levels of automation creeping into vehicles.” He sees a future where drivers can drop off their cars off at car parks to park themselves; and where cars will be able to drive autonomously on motorways or other constrained environments.

Stella Turner
Stella Turner

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