Oxbotica self-driving AEV

Long-read interview with self-driving expert Ben Upcroft, VP of Technology at Oxbotica.

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Oxbotica’s Ben Upcroft talks Universal Autonomy – how self-driving will increase safety and enable countless further innovations

Over the last few years, Cars of the Future has reported extensively on the growth of Oxbotica – from Founder and CTO Professor Paul Newman’s ambition to target “anything that moves people or goods”, to exciting partnerships with big hitters including BP, Navtech, NEVS, Ocado, Wenco and ZF, to its headline-grabbing achievement of running a zero-occupancy self-driving electric vehicle on UK public roads.

Self-driving expert: Ben Upcroft of Oxbotica
Self-driving expert: Ben Upcroft of Oxbotica

In this exclusive long-read interview, Oxbotica’s VP of Technology, Ben Upcroft, discusses the company’s vision for universal autonomy and its role in sustainable mobility.  

NK: Thanks for your time, Ben. For starters, tell us about your work at Queensland University of Technology and how you ended up in the UK at Oxbotica?

BU: “I’ve been involved in robotics and autonomous platforms for over two decades, initially on draglines, shovels, and haul trucks for mining. We were looking to take autonomy out into the field, to understand how we could use it in industry. Since then, I’ve been involved in underwater robotic platforms, aerial vehicles, and robotic manipulation.

“Vehicles present such rich problems. Solutions will continuously evolve, just like computers – we’ve gone from mainframes taking up whole rooms to being in everyone’s pocket. Today, we have autonomous vehicles out there operating in all sorts of different domains – on-road, off-road and everything in between – and they’ll continue to improve.

“It has been a real privilege to be part of this product development, from the very early days to a place where we will see autonomy in everyone’s hands, where every person and every organisation will be able to leverage autonomy. That’s what attracted me to Oxbotica.

“We’re creating a Universal Autonomy software platform to enable any vehicle in any place to operate autonomously and gain all the benefits that autonomy brings – efficiency gains, productivity gains and safety gains.

“We’re working in different industries, with lots of different organisations, and have already deployed it into many different domains. To do that, we have made a software platform without baking in assumptions on the hardware, the domain, or the environmental conditions.

“Assumptions are dangerous. For example, to presume that you’ll always be able to see lane markings (not true for off-road domains) and making that a fundamental part of your technology limits your capability for off-highway and off-road domains. Conversely, thinking about things in terms of Universal Autonomy – with a capability to deploy around the globe in various domains – has many advantages.

“Oxbotica is one of very few companies, if any, operating in mining environments, airports, ports, quarries, urban environments for grocery deliveries and passenger transport. It’s such an exciting place to be, to see how we can enable all these industries to take advantage of autonomy.”

Self-driving: Oxbotica AEV in Oxford, May 2022
Self-driving: Oxbotica Applied EV in Oxford, May 2022

NK: Running a zero-occupancy vehicle on public roads was a landmark moment, true self-driving in stark contrast to cars with ADAS…

BU: “Yes, we’re really proud of that particular vehicle – demonstrating how, with our software, any type of vehicle can be autonomous. On one hand you had the technical challenge, but perhaps the greater challenge was understanding how to work with the government, proving bodies, regulatory bodies, policymakers and certification authorities to create the ecosystem.

“It was great to have all those appropriate authorities watching and being involved in the program – understanding how autonomy can go from an add-on to a vehicle driven by a human, to one with no human, no steering wheel or pedals. That unleashes a whole expanse of capabilities for industry to amplify, from deliveries to public transport.

“Zero occupancy enables all kinds of changes. For example, space savings because you don’t need to build a vehicle around the person anymore. Since the invention of the motor car, design has always had to be about the driver, until now. Then there’s power requirements, comfort levels, all those things.

“If it’s a zero-occupancy vehicle for grocery deliveries, the milk doesn’t care if the acceleration is different to what you’d expect from a normal car. If it has to stop and wait for a little while, maybe that’s not such a big issue, because you’re not optimising for the human in the loop anymore. I’m really excited to see how these factors change how industry operates.

“We call this an economy software platform, building on top of what autonomy brings. Much like Android on a Google phone – they don’t build all the apps, they build the capability for others to add apps.

“Microsoft never set out to build a booking system for a dentist business, but they enabled people to come up with the ideas and build on the platform to enable those capabilities. That’s what I really want to see – our platform enabling countless further innovations, progress that no one expected or foresaw.

“The zero-occupancy side of things is very exciting and Oxbotica is one of the first companies in the world, certainly in Europe, to achieve it on public roads.”

Self-driving: Oxbotica Applied EV
Self-driving: Oxbotica Applied EV

NK: It seems that every company developing self-driving tech pays close attention when someone else makes a breakthrough…

BU: “We all rely so much on vehicles to get our goods and move ourselves around, and autonomy brings such a new paradigm to transport, that I can absolutely understand why everyone’s watching everyone else – maybe Oxbotica more than most, because of the partnerships we’re building.

“Our Universal Autonomy capability makes us a horizontal across multiple industries. We build the software into all these different domains, all these different vehicles, and any industry can give us a call if they can see benefits in working with us.

“We’re not trying to be a taxi company or a mining company, and we don’t want to be. Just like we won’t tie people into using a certain type of sensor or fleet management system. We build software that enables companies to innovate, to amplify what they’re doing.

“We work with partners that are experts in their domains, and this gains us experience in terms of the benefits that autonomy can bring in different sectors. For example, Ocado has such an amazing automation system for grocery packing in their warehouses. What we do is connect a warehouse to the kerbside using autonomy, so they’re extending automation all the way to their customers.

“BP is another amazing partner to work with, because it has such a diverse set of domains. Solar farms, wind farms and refineries all require different types of vehicles, and they have locations all around the world which, again, means different requirements. We’re agnostic to the type of vehicle and the type of domain.

“ZF is an automotive tier one supplier developing passenger transport shuttles and we’re its autonomy software platform provider. That’s a super exciting partnership for us because we’ll enable these shuttles to operate autonomously in urban environments all around the world.

“Another one is NEVS, an OEM car manufacturer building small electric passenger vehicles.

Working on autonomy for these vehicles has really changed the way we think about how passengers and people can move around, reducing the need for individual car ownership and reducing congestion.”

Self-driving: Oxbotica Applied EV, 2022
Self-driving: Oxbotica Applied EV, 2022

NK: That brings us nicely to the relationship with the traditional motor industry. How do you see that evolving over the next 10 years?

BU: “It’s going to be mixed. You’re going to start seeing autonomy in some places, in some industries. As that proves out, it will expand, both geographically for that particular industry, and into other markets, as we as a community gain confidence and better understand the technology and the regulatory frameworks.

“There’s not a huge pull for consumers to have an autonomous car at their doorstep that they can use whenever they want. Don’t get me wrong, that’s potentially a very large market for the future. But there are other markets that have a need for autonomy right now – mining, airports, logistics – they’re looking for safety, productivity and efficiency gains, and the ability to operate 24/7.

“It’s likely that industries struggling to recruit enough drivers will increasingly turn to autonomy to deliver the kind of productivity levels they’re aiming for. And, as we service these markets, that will bring confidence.

“The ability to drive anywhere, anytime, anyplace is a vision that we are working towards, starting in domains that can significantly benefit from autonomy now. So you’ll start seeing autonomous public transport, shuttle buses, soon, within two to three years, maybe earlier.

“Those types of platforms will pop up in different cities, different urban environments. We’ll see other types of autonomous vehicles too, for goods delivery, for example, in an even shorter timeframe. And that’s just going to continue and expand. Autonomy brings so many advantages that industries will soon need to leverage it to be competitive.

“For us to deploy into all these different domains, we need to demonstrate that our technology is safe, both to get insurance and to assure the communities that we’re working with. But traditional verification and validation involves years of continuous testing, driving millions of miles. That doesn’t seem like the smartest way of going about it.

“We think there’s a way to verify and validate in a more accelerated way: to give the system the ability to test itself in simulation and find the edge cases much more rapidly. We’ve developed a product that enables rapid validation and verification called MetaDriver. It’s exciting. It will enable us to deploy new products more quickly, so everyone can gain the advantage of whatever new feature is available in autonomy. That will be key.”

For further info visit the Oxbotica website.

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Author: Neil Kennett

Neil is MD of Featurebank Ltd. He launched Carsofthefuture.co.uk in 2019.