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Cars of the Future self-driving event report: SMMT Connected 2024

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Great British self-driving at SMMT Connected 2024

Like a wily international manager giving a tournament debut to a wildly talented prodigy, The Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) put self-driving front and centre of its eagerly anticipated Connected 2024 event.

Lined up outside The QEII Centre, in the shadow of Westminster Abbey, were some of the best British self-driving vehicles – a CAVForth bus, an Oxa modified Ford pickup, and an Aurrigo airport Auto-Dolly – and the impressive but not self-driving Ford Mustang Mach-E.

SMMT Connected 2024 self-driving vehicles
SMMT Connected 2024 vehicle line-up

For those in the sector, it was a pinch yourself moment – no longer some side quest from driver assistance, this was high profile backing for true self-driving from one of the UK’s largest trade associations.

Self-driving press briefing

The day (Thursday 14 March) started early, with an 8am press briefing by SMMT Chief Executive, Mike Hawes. He set out why “the UK auto sector is calling for the swift passing of the Automated Vehicles (AV) Bill to deliver long-term economic and social benefits”, notably preventing 53,000 serious accidents by 2040 and delivering a £38bn economic boost… if the Bill is enacted in this parliament.

“Further delay risks leaving Britain in the slow lane, jeopardising our competitiveness,” he warned, highlighting new YouGov research for the SMMT showing that 29% of UK adults would happily use an automated bus, shuttle or taxi service today.

This set the scene for a lively Q&A with David Wong, Senior Technology and Innovation Manager at the SMMT, Oxa’s Autonomy Systems and Regulatory Expert, Bryn Balcombe (formerly of F1 and Roborace), and Prof. David Keene, Chief Executive of Aurrigo.

SMMT Connected 2024 press briefing
SMMT Connected 2024 self-driving press briefing

Wong refenced the launch of PAVE UK and the need to build public trust, while Balcombe (more from him later) urged vehicle manufactures to speed up the adoption of brake- and steer-by-wire in readiness for automation.

Prof. Keene explained that, as well as being a tier one supplier to the likes of JLR and Bentley, and working on self-driving passenger vehicles, Aurrigo is now the world leader in automated baggage handling at airports. Despite the current state of tech stocks globally, he expressed pride in Aurrigo being listed on the London Stock Exchange’s Alternative Investment Market (AIM).

Transport Minister

All this, remember, before the main conference had even begun! Upstairs, in an auditorium packed with 300+ delegates, broadcaster Katie Derham introduced the first keynote speaker, the Rt Hon Mark Harper MP, Secretary of State for Transport.

He enthused about mobility “without the responsibility of driving”, his experience of travelling in a Wayve car in London, and the opportunity for “world leading regulation” to “transform the life chances of the disadvantaged”.

Transport Secretary Harper takes a self-driving ride to announce the AV Bill

Predictably, questions from our broadsheet colleagues then focused on electric cars! Fair points to which Harper provided more than adequate answers.

Dr. Celine Laurent-Winter, Vice President of Connected Vehicle Platforms at BMW Group, then captured the imagination with the promise of an enjoyable journey to the south of France, complete with in-car luxuries, no traffic jams or breakdowns, and the vehicle handling all the cross-channel arrangements. “Premium connectivity is a must to enable this,” she said.

Derham then hosted a fireside chat with Maria Uvarova, SVP of Software Product at Stellantis, and Tom Stringer, Product Strategy Director at JLR. “Statistics tell us that AVs are safer,” said Uvarova, while Stringer insisted that personal ownership would remain the preferred option at the pricier end of the market.

Sunshine at SMMT Connected 2024
Sunshine at SMMT Connected 2024

Self-driving panels

If this is starting to sound more connected than self-driving, fear not. The next panel, moderated by Ben Gardner, of law firm Shoosmiths, and featuring Dr René Hosse, Head of AD System Definition at Volkswagen Commercial Vehicles, Isobel Pastor, Head of the Centre for Connected and Autonomous Vehicles (CCAV), and Prof. Keene of Aurrigo, was titled: “Making the quantum leap: overcoming the remaining challenges to a safe and responsible commercial rollout of automated vehicles”.

PAVE UK got another mention, with Gardner saying: “The AV Bill is a fantastic first step and may it sail through parliament.” Hosse reiterated the importance of being utterly transparent about what the technology can and can’t do. In response to a question about the likely timescale, Pastor said: “The target is 2026, in line with what we are hearing from industry, and there will also be more advanced trials.”

The next panel, on Trustworthy AI, was moderated by Cerys Wyn Davies of law firm Pinsent Masons, and featured Sarah Gates of Wayve, Kevin Green of Logistics UK, Rob Rugman of Motability Operations, and Jim Sanders, of the Royal National Institute of Blind people (RNIB).

Highlighting Wayve’s Lingo tool, which enables the software to explain its actions using language, Gates asserted: “The only way to achieve safety is AI”. Green admitted there had not been the highest level of focus on CAM in the CV sector due to other priorities such as clean fuel. Similarly, Rugman was more focused on connectivity because “it is here today.”  

Sanders raised the thorny issue of self-driving public transport negatively impacting blind people by removing the reassurance and assistance of the driver. He made a compelling case that designing for inclusivity was proven to result in significant unforeseen benefits, such as the widespread adoption of voice commands.

MH at SMMT 2024

Admirably keeping the attention before lunch, Robert Smith, of Digital Catapult, drew on his 35 years in AI to argue that it is “a goal rather than a technology”. He used an AI-generated picture of a car with four sideways wheels to expose the limitations.

The first session after lunch, a remote presentation by Maria Cristina Galassi, of the European Commission, was unfortunately hindered by technical issues. But we were soon back up to speed with another heavyweight panel featuring Peter Hafmar, Head of Autonomous Solutions at Scania, Ali Ihsan, of L4 software provider ADASTEC, and George Ivanov, Head of International Policy at Waymo (formerly Google’s Self-Driving Car Project).

Hafmar emphasised the surprising extent of data sharing across the leading companies, while Ivanov pointed to “statistically credible data” from the US showing self-driving to be 85% safer against a human benchmark.

After Johannes Springer, of the 5G Automotive Association (5GAA), outlined his organisation’s work in uniting the telecom and auto industries, he joined a panel on “The critical enablers that pave the way for connected and automated mobility.”

Featuring Amelia Armour, of Amadeus Capital Partners, Lee Callaghan, of insurer Aviva, Andrew Hart, of SBD Automotive, and Joe Poynter, of global address system What3words, it covered everything from cybersecurity (we don’t invest as heavily as sectors such as banking), to an initiative in the Netherlands to makes all traffic lights smart (huge benefits for relatively little cost), to accident data reporting (vital to understand what happened and why).

We were in the home straight now, and the pace was picking up. Standing in for Prof. Paul Newman, Bryn Balcombe of Oxa walked us through the key lines in the AV Bill.

He reflected on that fact that it took 19 months to investigate the death of Elaine Herzberg, and used the notorious 2021 Hamilton Verstappen F1 crash at Monza – the one where Lewis said the halo saved him – to explain how UK self-driving crashes would be investigated.

Shadow Minister

Shadow Minister for Transport, Bill Esterson MP, at SMMT Connected 2024
Shadow Minister for Transport, Bill Esterson MP

Finally, with more than half an eye on the next general election, Shadow Minister for Transport, Bill Esterson MP, reiterated that “Labour will support the AV Bill currently going through the Commons“, and reintroduce the 2030 ban on new petrol and diesel car sales.

Returning to our opening analogy, this was another momentous day for UK self-driving – the wider automotive industry acknowledging that automated mobility is a gamechanger ready to be carefully introduced. MPs from all sides are supportive and the best regulatory framework in the world is almost in place. Now, let’s get Britain self-driving!

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Author: Neil Kennett

Neil is MD of Featurebank Ltd. He launched in 2019.