Autoura’s Bainbridge says China has won the self-driving engineering race and Level4 is near-term in the UK.

UK urged to concede the self-driving engineering race and focus on the business opportunity

Our Zenzic CAM Creator series continues with the CEO of Autoura, Alex Bainbridge.

Since selling online reservation service TourCMS in 2015, tourism entrepreneur Alex Bainbridge has been working on his next industry gamechanger: Sahra the sightseeing robot – a digital assistant, concierge and tour guide. Sahra is already available as an app for tourists on foot, but combine her with a driverless car and you get an AI holiday rep and your own personal tour bus in one, all completely human-free. Bringing a different perspective to our other Zenzic CAM Creators, the affable Bainbridge has words of wisdom and some brutal home truths for the UK self-driving industry.

AB: “Over the last 20 years we’ve seen web, mobile and social dramatically change the sightseeing industry. These inventions were forced upon us and we’ve had to grapple with them. Self-driving is next and governments around the world are rushing to legalise it. A lot of the focus here is still on engineering, but China has already won that race. The faster we all accept that, the sooner we as a nation can shift to winning the commercialisation race. We’re driven by the money-making opportunity.

Sightseeing Autonomous Hospitality Robot by Autoura – Sahra

“50% of sightseeing is by vehicle and these new automated forms of transport will bring change, whether it’s an e-scooter for a city tour, or a self-driving car for a vineyard visit or road trip. I’m interested in the pure leisure uses and the customer experience, not deliveries or getting from A to B. We’ve built a digital platform that can work on any robo-taxi. Google, Apple, Amazon and Baidu will all run self-driving fleets, and they’re going to have to compete with Uber and Lyft. We want the customer experience layer.

“Most urban vehicle-based sightseeing is currently done by hop-on hop-off buses, but major cities are beginning to ban them – either directly, by closing roads, or indirectly, by not allowing them to park. The transition to autonomous will start with CAVs running routes like buses. This means we can get trading from Level4, and we only need a few vehicles to start. We’re a step away from the hardware but look at Waymo in Phoenix and Cruise in San Francisco – this is near-term and we’re going to see some big changes in the second half of 2021.”

For further info on Autoura’s “in-destination travel experiences”, see autoura.com.

Prof Nick Reed on how automated vehicles can bring safer, more sustainable transport and a better society for all.

Safety, air quality and accessibility: Professor predicts how driverless cars will change UK

Our Zenzic CAM Creator series continues with the founder of Reed Mobility, Professor Nick Reed.

Specialising in psychology and road safety, Professor Nick Reed is one of the UK’s leading experts on connected and automated vehicles (CAVs). His company, Reed Mobility, helps organisations and businesses in their understanding of risk and the effectiveness of mitigations for infrastructure, vehicles, drivers and road users.

What major changes do you expect in UK transport over the next 10-15 years? 

I hope we’ve moved beyond the high point of hype and will start to see the commercial deployment of automated vehicles, delivering positive impacts on safety, air quality and accessibility to transport – all the radical transformations the AV industry has been promising. Over the last few weeks, with announcements from the likes of Waymo and Cruise, there are signs this might be happening.

The issue of air quality isn’t going away. We need to accelerate decarbonisation and encourage active transport. I hear people say we need to start designing cities around people rather than cars, but I don’t think that’s quite right. We have always designed cities around people, but for a long time we’ve seen cars as the best solution for moving people – now we understand that alternatives are required to achieve sustainable mobility in urban centres. Data will be critical in changing that thinking, in understanding mobility in cities and rural areas – helping us to understand who needs to travel, how best to serve those needs, and the social, environmental, safety and economic impacts of meeting that demand.

Can you expand on the likely development of self-driving vehicles within this timeframe e.g. freight platooning, robotaxis and privately owned driverless cars?

We have converging strands of automation. The likes of Waymo and limited operational design domain (ODD), the car doing everything in restricted circumstances, and then the manufacturers of traditional privately-owned cars, including Tesla, introducing more ADAS features and increasing the level of automation.

That convergence, where automated cars can do everything everywhere, is a long way off, but over time the boundaries of the ODDs in which vehicles are capable of operating in an automated mode will expand, encompassing more roads, more traffic situations and more weather conditions.

Automation in which control shifts from human drivers to vehicle systems present a challenge and, again, data may play a critical role in resolving this issue. To have this functionality, drivers may have to accept much greater driver monitoring than is typical in cars today. There’s also the concern about how extended use of automation over time may potentially result in deskilling the driver. Cars may decide that, based on their observations of driving behaviour, the driver is not sufficiently capable to have automation! The evidence on achieving safe sharing of responsibility for driving with automation systems is mixed, to say the least.

An additional route for road automation that has a lot of promise is for the movement of goods. With no passengers on board – and fewer concerns over vehicles operating at low speed or achieving passenger comfort – companies may be more willing to launch automated freight vehicles (like Nuro). This may open up new business models for delivery services that would be impossible with human driven deliveries.

With reference to your six key perspectives (safety, environment, prosperity, productivity, technology and joy) what benefits will these vehicles bring?

Safety – it’s about tackling human error as a contributory factor in road crashes. No one is claiming that automation will solve everything, but it may start to reduce the prevalence of common factors like excess speed, intoxication and fatigue.

Environment – it’s about the whole model of transportation. If we can shift to shared, on-demand vehicles, then maybe we need fewer of them. Also, active travel might feel safer if vehicles are more predictable.

Prosperity – mobility is a key factor in success for communities and individuals. AVs might help tackle issues of equality in transport provision.

Productivity – it’s about reclaiming time. If the AV is driving you can spend time doing other things, whether that’s being more productive for work or gaining a better life balance.

Technology – most people agree that technology has brought huge benefits, but we can do better, for example, in terms of poor air quality or the number of people dying in crashes. To achieve this, we need to break out of the transport model we’ve been using for 100 years – and we may need new technologies to help us do that.

Joy – our transport systems should be a source of happiness. Let’s create environments that are aesthetically attractive. If we want our children to play in the streets we need transport that’s compatible with that, not lorries thundering past.

What are the potential downsides in the shift to self-driving and how can these be mitigated?

Of course, there’s a utopian and dystopian version of a future with automated vehicles. People often raise the issue of unemployment for professional drivers but the widescale deployment of automated vehicles is going to have a long transition period. Automation might address a shortage of drivers in the freight sector and may also create new jobs in remote vehicle monitoring and fleet maintenance. Although the transition may be long, it is something we need to be thinking about now to ensure that it is a smooth process.

There’s also a challenge coming around how we see crashes from an ethical point of view. Unfortunately, 1.3 million people die on our roads globally every year, of which there’s about 1,800 in the UK. Automation may reduce that number significantly but we need to be prepared for the discussion about fatalities caused by the actions of machines rather than human drivers.

Another concern is that models of automated vehicle deployment could further embed personal car use into society, when active travel is more sustainable. Automated vehicles have the potential to change our mobility ecosystem radically – so it’s important that we have a clear vision about how that change can bring safer, more sustainable transport and a better society for all.

For further info, including more detail on the six key perspectives, visit reed-mobility.co.uk

Bold predictions about our driverless future by petrolhead Clem Robertson.

Meet the maverick radar expert of UK drones and driverless

Welcome to a new series of interviews with our fellow Zenzic CAM Creators. First up, Clem Robertson, CEO of R4dar Technologies.

As a keen cyclist who built his own Cosworth-powered Quantum sportscar from scratch, it’s no surprise that the founder of Cambridge-based R4dar takes a unique approach to self-driving. Indeed, his involvement can be traced directly to one shocking experience: driving down a local country lane one night, he had a near miss with a cyclist with no lights. He vividly remembers how a car came the other way, illuminating the fortunate rider in silhouette and enabling an emergency stop. It proved to be a light bulb moment.

R4dar urban scene tags
R4dar urban scene tags

What does R4dar bring to connected and automated mobility (CAM)? 

CR: “I’d been working in radar for five or six years, developing cutting edge radar for runways, when the incident with the cyclist got me thinking: Why could my cruise control radar not tell me something was there and, importantly, what it was? This kind of technology has been around for years – in World War II we needed to tell the difference between a Spitfire and a Messerschmitt. They placed a signal on the planes which gave this basic information, but things can be much more sophisticated these days. Modern fighter pilots use five different methods of identification before engaging a potential bogey, because one or more methods might not work and you can’t leave it to chance whether to blow someone out of the sky. The autonomous vehicle world is doing similar with lidar, radar, digital mapping etc. Each has its shortcomings – GPS is no good in tunnels; the cost of 5G can be prohibitive and coverage is patchy; cameras aren’t much good over 100 metres or in the rain, lidar is susceptible to spoofing or misinterpretation; digital maps struggle with temporary road layouts – but together they create a more resilient system.”

How will your solutions improve the performance of self-driving cars?

CR: “Radar only communicates with itself, so it is cyber-resilient, and our digital tags can be used on smart infrastructure as well as vehicles – everything from platooning lorries to digital high vis jackets, traffic lights to digital bike reflectors. They can tell you three things: I am this, I am here and my status is this. For example, I’m a traffic light up ahead and I’m going to turn red in 20 seconds. Radar works in all weathers. It is reliable up to 250-300m and very good at measuring range and velocity, while the latest generation of radars are getting much better at differentiating between two things side-by-side. We are working with CAM partners looking to use radar in active travel, to improve safety and traffic management, as well as with fleet and bus operators. We are also working with the unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) industry to create constellations of beacons that are centimetre-accurate, so that delivery drones can land in a designated spot in the garden and not on the dog!”

R4dar cyclists in fog
R4dar cyclists in fog

What major developments do you expect over the next 10-15 years?

CR: “Fully autonomous vehicles that don’t carry passengers will come first. There are already little robots on the streets of Milton Keynes and, especially with Covid, you will see a big focus on autonomous last mile delivery – both UAVs and unmanned ground vehicle (UGVs). You never know, we might see delivery bots enacting a modern version of the computer game Paperboy. More and more people in urban areas with only roadside parking will realise that electric cars are tricky to charge, unless you put the chargers in the road, which is expensive. If you only need a car one or two days a month, or even for just a couple of hours, there will be mobility as a service (MAAS) solutions for that. Why would you bother with car ownership? E-scooters are one to keep an eye on – once they’re regulated they will be a useful and independent means of getting around without exercising. Town centres will change extensively once MAAS and CAM take off. There will be improved safety for vulnerable road users, more pedestrianisation, and you might see segmented use at certain times of day.”

Do you see any downsides in the shift to self-driving?

CR: “Yes! I love driving, manual gearboxes, the smell of petrol, the theatre, but you can see already that motorsport, even F1, is becoming a dinosaur in its present form. People are resistant to change and autonomous systems prompt visions of Terminator, but it is happening and there will be consequences. Mechanics are going to have less work and will have to retrain because electric motors have less moving parts. Courier and haulage driving jobs will go. Warehouses will be increasingly automated. MAAS will mean less people owning their own cars and automotive manufacturers will have to adapt to selling less vehicles – it’s a massive cliff and it’s coming at them much faster than they thought – that’s why they’re all scrambling to become autonomous EV manufacturers, it’s a matter of survival.”

R4dar lights in fog
R4dar lights in fog

So, to sum up….

CR: “Fully autonomous, go-anywhere vehicles are presented as the utopia, but there’s a realisation that this is a difficult goal, or at least a first world problem. There might always be a market for manned vehicles in more remote locations. A lot of the companies in this industry specialise in data, edge processing and enhanced geospatial awareness, and that will bring all kinds of benefits. How often have you driven in fog unable to see 10m in front of you? Self-driving technology will address that and many other dangers.”

Hearing bold predictions like these from a petrolhead like Clem, suddenly Zenzic’s ambitious 10-year plan seems eminently achievable.

For further info, visit the R4dar website.

In an explosive exclusive interview with Cars of the Future, transport expert Christian Wolmar presents a devastating critique of the self-driving dream.

Are driverless cars the future? Don’t believe the hype says Wolmar

As an arch critic of the UK’s autonomous vehicle plans, transport commentator Christian Wolmar sums up his views in the title of his book, Driverless Cars: On a Road to Nowhere.

“The problems are almost too great to list, but my primary concerns are two-fold: technological and environmental,” he says. “There are huge worries about rushing into it, cutting corners which might result in accidents and deaths, as they already have.

“Then there’s a bigger issue: what is the positive outcome? I just don’t see it. People are not asking for it, it doesn’t solve problems such as congestion or pollution, yet huge amounts of money are going into it with almost no return.

“The technology can be hacked. There’s the risk of deskilling drivers with the adoption of more automated driving aids, then expecting them to take over in the event of an emergency. The more you look at the driverless vision, the more dystopian it appears.”

At this point, Wolmar casually mentions a host of other potential pitfalls concerning legality, privacy, practicality. You get the picture. He’s not a fan. Following this initial brutal attack on the foundation stones of the self-driving dream, he quickly covers off some popular retorts.

“The argument goes that driverless cars will help the blind and others who can’t drive, but logically this must mean more cars on the road and therefore more congestion,” he says. “The response is “ah, no, because there will be shared use”, but there’s no evidence that people want that. It isn’t a realistic concept, but even if we get there it will not be a good place.”

So why are governments, vehicle manufacturers and tech companies so obsessed with it? “The proponents of driverless have managed to create a climate in which the public and politicians think it is inevitable, but it isn’t,” he says.

“After 12 years of testing robotaxis in sunny climates on nice wide geofenced highways you still have to sign a nondisclosure agreement to get in one! The developers are driven by fear that someone else will make the technology work and become the market leader, but everything points to the fact that this is a technological dead end. Like Concorde, lots of great ideas have floundered.”

Finally, Wolmar relents briefly from his devastating critique. “There may be some limited uses such as airport transit,” he admits. “It’s a bit like the moon landing, some great technologies will come out of it. Indeed, if you speak to people at trade shows, a lot of them are very skeptical about driverless ever becoming a dominant technology. They already have successful businesses supplying cameras or software or lidar, and that’s where their interest lies.

“Outside of the industry, many think driverless cars are already available to buy. It is pure hype. They don’t exist. Headlines in the media claim driverless cars can do this or that, and then in paragraph five it says there’s a safety driver.

“You saw it with covid and the supposed benefits of driverless delivery. If anything, the impact of the pandemic on driverless was to completely undermine the shared use argument, which is vital to the business case. Coronavirus, and whatever comes after it, is as much a problem for shared use as it is for public transport.”

So, what’s Wolmar’s preferred solution? “The approach must be different for each town or city, but urban areas are not suitable for the unregulated use of private cars,” he says. “You have to recognise that road space is a limited asset, to do otherwise is bad economics. This is not a war on the motorist. There will be cars of the future, but cars in their proper place, particularly rural areas.”

Driverless Cars: On a Road to Nowhere second edition (2020)

For more detailed analysis (and scathing criticism), the second edition of Wolmar’s book “Driverless Cars: On a Road to Nowhere” is out now via London Publishing Partnership priced at £9.99. Alternatively, email christian.wolmar@gmail.com or visit www.christianwolmar.co.uk.

Opening of the Smart Mobility Living Lab in London and the Darwin SatCom Lab in Oxfordshire

UK increases driverless vehicle testing capability with new centres in London and Oxford

Last week saw the UK expand its driverless vehicle testing infrastructure with the opening of two impressive new facilities: the Smart Mobility Living Lab in London and the Darwin SatCom Lab in Oxfordshire.

On 30 September, Zenzic officially opened its Smart Mobility Living Lab (SMLL) with an online event featuring Paul Campion, CEO of TRL, and virtual ribbon-cutting by Danny Thorpe, leader of the council in the Royal Borough of Greenwich.

Described as the place to go for real-world connected and automated vehicles (CAV) and connected and automated mobility (CAM) testing, the SMLL will use public and private roads in London “to develop and validate new mobility and transport technologies in a real-world connected environment”.

The following day, O2 opened its new commercial 5G and satellite communications lab at the Harwell Science and Innovation Campus in Oxfordshire.

Part of Project Darwin, a four-year programme supported by O2 and the European Space Agency, it will “explore and trial next-gen connectivity solutions for connected and autonomous vehicles”.

Derek McManus, chief operating officer at O2, said: “We’re delighted to announce that the Darwin SatCom Lab is now open for business. It’s the next step in getting autonomous vehicles on the road and making the UK’s transport network greener.”

Amanda Solloway MP, Minister for Science, Research and Innovation, added: “I am incredibly excited that O2’s first of its kind driverless car lab will enable our most innovative businesses to test these technologies and bring us another step closer to putting self-driving vehicles safely on our roads.”

Typical, you wait months for a significant development and two come along at once.

Given how quickly they’ve revolutionised the motor industry, who’s to say Tesla won’t also win the race to driverless?

Fully autonomous by 2023? Tesla leads the charge to self-driving cars

2020 has been an epic year for Tesla. While virtually every other vehicle manufacturer continues to build petrol, diesel and hybrid cars, Elon Musk’s commitment to pure electric has paid off handsomely.

Back in February, the Model 3 was named UK Car of the Year. By July, a share price surge had made Tesla the world’s most valuable car company, worth a staggering $208bn, overtaking Toyota (on $203bn) and miles ahead of Volkswagen ($74bn), General Motors ($36bn) and Ford ($24bn).

Since 2016, with the introduction of the Autopilot Hardware 2 package, Tesla has made ever bolder claims about full self-driving. “It’s almost getting to a point where I can go from my house to work with no interventions,” boasted Musk this summer.

Such remarks have drawn stinging criticism. “Tesla has repeatedly rolled out crude beta features, some of which can put people’s safety at risk and shouldn’t be used anywhere but on a private test track,” said William Wallace, manager of safety policy for Washington-based Consumer Reports. 

Not so long ago, rival carmakers were similarly dismissive of battery power. What they’d give to be as desirable as Tesla now!  

Last week, as part of his 2020 annual shareholder meeting (and much-publicised #BatteryDay), Musk laid down an ambitious new marker: “I think probably like in about three years from now, we’re confident we can make a very competent, very compelling $25,000 electric vehicle that’s also fully autonomous,” he said.

Given how quickly they’ve revolutionised the industry, who’s to say Tesla won’t also win the race to driverless?

Space age navigation for driverless cars

In a fascinating new article, published on 18 September 2020, NASA explained how its laser-based lunar landing technology could be adopted by self-driving cars.

Facing many of the same navigational and hazard avoidance challenges, NASA brought sensors, cameras, algorithms and high-performance computers together under the Safe and Precise Landing Integrated Capabilities Evolution (SPLICE) project.

Considering Mars is approximately 34 million miles from earth, and NASA successfully landed the Curiosity rover within a 12×4 mile target area, autonomous vehicle developers would be wise to pay attention.

What’s more, NASA intends to be even more precise in future, with a new variation called Navigation Doppler Lidar (NDL), which detects the movement and velocity of distant objects, as well as a spacecraft’s own motion relative to the ground.

Steve Sandford, former director at NASA’s Langley Research Center and now Chief Technology Officer at Psionic, said: “Doppler lidar’s high resolution can distinguish between objects that are only several inches apart and even at a distance of several hundred feet.” Potentially perfect for detecting, for instance, a pedestrian crossing a road.

For further info, read the original NASA article.

Connected cars: whose data is it anyway?

In a prime example of the potential of connected cars, Volvo recently announced that it will share real-time data with the aim of improving road safety.

Some Volvos already warn each other about local threats such as slippery surfaces or broken down vehicles. The idea is to make this kind of anonymised data available “for the greater good”, as Håkan Samuelsson, president and CEO of Volvo Cars, put it.

So far so altruistic, but what about all the other data being collected?

Well, academics at Dartmouth College in the US have been looking at this very issue, particularly in relation to navigational technologies. Lead researcher Professor Luis Alvarez León is in no doubt that decisions should not be left to vehicle manufacturers alone.

In his peer-reviewed article, Counter-Mapping the Spaces of Autonomous Driving, he said: “The race for automated navigation leads automakers to compete over the release of new technical features and new revenue streams, while paying secondary attention to the possible negative externalities for consumers.”

Bill Hanvey, CEO of the Auto Care Association, agrees. Writing in the New York Times, he said: “It is clear, because of its value – as high as $750bn by 2030 – carmakers have no incentive to release control of the data collected from our vehicles.

“Policymakers, however, have the opportunity to give drivers control – not just so that they can keep their data private but also so that they can share it with the people they want to see it.”

Closer to home, Fleet News reported on a KPMG survey showing that just 35% of UK automotive executives expect the driver to have data ownership. So, two thirds expect their companies to take care of it?

From the use of facial recognition software, to insights gathered from voice commands, we need to talk more about personal data in relation to connected cars.