Oxbotica founder and CTO, Professor Paul Newman, addresses MPs on the Transport Committee about self-driving, October 2022.

Oxbotica CTO Newman tells MPs: explainability is foundation of trust in self-driving

Last week, Oxbotica founder and CTO, Professor Paul Newman, addressed MPs on the Transport Committee to explain how self-driving technologies will deliver value to people, businesses and the planet.

The company posted about it on Linkedin, including a short video.

In relation to commercialisation, he said: “I think there’s an ordering of these technologies, and there’s an ordering of the operational design domain. Burdens are rightly different in some domains – it’s different in a mine to Kensington High Street.

“I’ve never come across a city that asks for more single occupancy vehicles, ever. They’ve always said: fewer please. So, I don’t think personal, private transports are the future, because cities want to change the way transport works. They want to make it more accessible. The number of bus trips that Londoners take is absolutely extraordinary. Let’s support that.

“Technological complexity worries me far less than the regulatory complexity. That’s not just saying you should trust us. What’s great about some of the regulation that’s coming through is that there’s meaty technical requirements placed on the manufacturers of autonomy software. That allow the systems to be explainable, and explainability is the foundation of being trustworthy.”

For more on Oxbotica’s vision for universal autonomy, see this recent interview with its VP of Technology, Ben Upcroft.

Level 5 already… and we’ve put a man on Mars, I’ve seen the film.

Level 5? VW concept claim goes largely unchallenged

In late September, at the glamorous Chantilly Arts & Elegance event, near Paris, Volkswagen Group unveiled the Gen.Travel, an all-electric Level 5 concept vehicle. Sorry, did you just spill your tea?

“The all-electric powered Innovation Experience Vehicle (IEV) is a real prototype that drives autonomously (Level 5) and gives a realistic outlook for the mobility of the coming decade,” said the VW blurb. Sounds amazing.

Dr. Nikolai Ardey, Head of Volkswagen Group Innovation, says: “With Gen.Travel, we can already experience today what will be possible in the near future with innovative technology. Door-to-door travel at a new level. Emission-free and stress-free.”

Are VW really claiming to have cracked Level 5? That’s certainly the impression given by some reports.

“Volkswagen is presenting a new way of traveling in luxury and relaxation, with its new vehicle prototype featuring Level 5 autonomy that takes the wheel all the way from departure to arrival,” said Tech Times.

A quick reminder, the SAE international standard describes Level 5 as: “Can drive everywhere in all conditions”. That’s quite an ask.

In our 2020 long-read, Kevin Vincent, Director at the Centre for Connected and Autonomous Automotive Research, mused: “Level 5 in terms of anytime anywhere automation is very difficult; I sometimes wonder if it will be possible, and whether people will even want it.”

Not a problem, apparently VW have sorted it!

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

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.

More questions than answers as self-driving delivery robot enters Los Angeles crime scene.

Real world edge case as self-driving delivery bot has run-in with LA law

Video of a self-driving delivery robot entering a crime scene in Los Angeles has gone viral, prompting reasonable questions and hyperbolic headlines.

The unusual event, on 13 September, was captured in a 1m46s video by Twitter user “Film The Police LA”, receiving over 3k retweets and £21k likes:

He also posted it to Youtube:

“I wanna see this so badly,” says someone at the start. Near the end someone muses: “That’s gonna be the easiest way to bomb people, with a robot”.

NBC News ran the story under the headline “Skynet Fights Back: Food Delivery Robot Drives Through LA Crime Scene”, a reference to The Terminator films.

The incident itself – a suspected shooting – thankfully turned out to be a false alarm.

Was it self-driving?

However, the appropriation of blame is complicated by human intervention – a bystander lifting up the police tape to enable the robot to proceed, and the later claim that a human operator was responsible.

On 17 September, Serve Robotics, took to Twitter to clarify that: “This week a Serve robot failed to reroute around a police barrier because of human error. While robots are capable of operating autonomously in most circumstances, they’re assigned to human supervisors to ensure their safe operation, for instance when navigating a blockage. We respect the important work of law enforcement and are taking steps to ensure our operating procedures are followed in the future.”

As with the Cruise robotaxi drive-off back in April – “Ain’t nobody in it!” the officer says – in America, autonomous vehicles are having real-world run-ins with the law.

It’s only a matter of time before similar incidents happen here in the UK.

University of Tokyo ‘gazing’ self-driving car aims to improve pedestrian safety.

Tokyo uni studies eye cue for self-driving cars

New research by a team at The University of Tokyo indicates that fitting robotic eyes to self-driving vehicles could improve pedestrian safety.

The images below show first-person views of an experiment conducted using virtual reality (VR), with participants deciding whether or not the cart had noticed them. The researchers called it the ‘gazing car’.

Toyko uni scenarios on giving eyes to self-driving cars
Toyko uni scenarios on giving eyes to self-driving cars

The team set up four scenarios – two where the cart had eyes and two without. Was the eyeless cart intending to stop? How did results change when the cart had eyes, either looking towards the pedestrian or looking away?

University of Tokyo gazing car video

The study was small: only 18 participants – nine women and nine men, all aged 18-49, all Japanese – but there did seem to be differences in reaction according to gender.

Self-driving gender differences

More male participants reported “feeling that the situation was more dangerous” when the eyes were looking away. While more female participants said they “felt safer” when the eyes were looking at them.

Project Lecturer Chia-Ming Chang, a member of the research team, commented: “The results suggested a clear difference between genders, which was very surprising and unexpected.

“While other factors like age and background might have also influenced the participants’ reactions, we believe this is an important point. It shows that different road users may have different behaviours and needs that require different communication.”

Self-driving communication

Professor Takeo Igarashi, from the Graduate School of Information Science and Technology, added: “There is not enough investigation into the interaction between self-driving cars and the people around them.

“Moving from manual driving to auto driving is a huge change. If eyes can actually contribute to safety and reduce traffic accidents, we should seriously consider adding them.

“I hope this research encourages other groups to try similar ideas. Anything that facilitates better interaction between self-driving cars and pedestrians, which ultimately saves people’s lives.”

Here at Cars of the Future we have, of course, explored similar concepts before. Notably, in our interview with Yosuke Ushigome, Director at design innovation studio Takram.

For further info on The University of Tokyo study, see the team’s project page

Bournemouth University researchers investigate what Gen Z want from a self-driving car?

New research into self-driving UX: horse and rider or Jeeves and Wooster?

Bournemouth University has highlighted the work of Dr Kyungjoo Cha, Senior Lecturer in Product Design, in helping Hyundai and Kia to ensure that their self-driving vehicles live up to the expectations of Gen Z users – those born between 1997 and 2012.

Specialising in user experience (UX) design, and working in partnership with Hyundai Motor Company’s Holistic UX Group, Dr Cha began the “auZentic” project to understand how young people perceive their digital life and entertainment needs.

Dr Kyungjoo Cha helping self-driving vehicles live up to the expectations of Gen Z users
Dr Kyungjoo Cha is helping self-driving vehicles live up to Gen Z expectations

“This is a fast-moving sector, with the development of new technologies and artificial intelligence,” she said. “The automobile sector has invested a great deal in research and development for autonomous vehicles, and now Hyundai and Kia have identified the need to understand what will drive the next generation’s experience.

“Generation Z were born with the internet. Their perceptions around entertainment and digital life are different to older generations. Understanding this is crucial for designing the vehicles of the future. It will not necessarily be just about chilling out in the vehicle – we found they are passionate about advocacy and getting behind projects in their digital life.”

Ongoing self-driving partnership

Kia and Hyundai’s positive response to the initial work led to a second stage of the partnership, investigating how users will want to interact and communicate with an autonomous vehicle.

“The people we spoke to gave us many examples of the type of relationship they could have,” said Dr Cha. “Some suggested a relationship like that between a horse and its rider, we also had comparisons to a butler and their employer, or an aeroplane pilot and auto-pilot. Some also spoke about being team players with their cars.

“Different contexts will determine how people want to communicate. For example, if someone was feeling emotional or upset, they might not want to talk.”

The suggested solution is a multi-model approach offering several options for communication between car and user, which could provide safety benefits as well as better user experiences.

2019 Hyundai video

Back in 2019, in the early days of Cars of the Future, this futuristic video of Hyundai’s EV wireless charging and automated valet parking concept was one of our most popular features.

Hyundai self-driving concept 2019

On 9 June 2022, Westfield Sports Cars and its self-driving arm, Westfield Autonomous Vehicles, went into administration

Self-driving setback as Westfield Autonomous Vehicles falls into administration

In sad news for British motorsport and self-driving fans, on 9 June it emerged that Westfield Sports Cars and its subsidiary Westfield Autonomous Vehicles had both gone into administration.

Founded in 1983 and based in Kingswinford, near Birmingham, Westfield Sports Cars specialised in Lotus Seven inspired kit cars and was often compared to Caterham.

Westfield sports car
Westfield sports car

Westfield self-driving

Its diversification into self-driving was widely considered an astute move and it gained many plaudits for its involvement in the landmark GATEway Project in London,

In my 2018 article Autonomous Now, which led to the launch of Cars of the Future, I noted: “GATEway is entering its final phase, which will see a fleet of driverless pods providing a shuttle service around a 3.4km route on the Greenwich Peninsula.

Westfield self-driving pod in Greenwich 2018
Westfield self-driving pod in Greenwich 2018

“In a world first, members of the public are invited to take part in the research, by riding in or engaging with the pods and sharing their opinions.”

Supported by Innovate UK, Westfield went on to run a live commercial trial at Heathrow Airport Terminal 5. The future seemed bright.

Just prior to the Queen’s Speech, on 10 May, Westfield Technology Group CEO Julian Turner was one of the 17 major UK business representatives calling for the Government to announce primary legislation for automated vehicles (AVs).

A slightly bizarre last hurrah – if indeed this is the end – came a few weeks ago when the Westfield Pod featured on Grace’s Amazing Machines on BBC children’s channel CBeebies.

Westfield self-driving pod on CBeebies Grace's Amazing Machines
Westfield self-driving pod on CBeebies Grace’s Amazing Machines

For the record, presenter Grace Webb preferred it to the other two contenders – an electric bus and a ride-on lawnmower.

Distressed business listing service, Business Sale, reported that: “In its accounts for the year ending December 31 2021, Westfield Sports Cars reported fixed assets of close to £750,000 and current assets of slightly over £4 million. Less liabilities, the company’s net assets amounted to £1.179 million.

“Westfield Autonomous Vehicles, meanwhile, reported total assets of £1.4 million in its most recent accounts, but ended 2021 with net liabilities of close to £316,000.

“Despite the company’s demise, the assets set to be sold could represent a major opportunity for the right buyer, given their strong offering in the emerging self-driving electric vehicles sector and the niche kit car market.”

Autocar added: “Westfield had built up a solid reputation for creating interesting sports cars majoring on handling and horsepower rather than refinement.

“CEO Julian Turner also planned to push the autonomous pod side of the business, with the aim of turning Westfield into “the Boeing or Airbus of the automotive world”, selling these vehicles to fleet operators.

“Westfield Autonomous Vehicles created the Heathrow Pods that connect the Terminal 5 business parking to the main building and claims to have delivered “more fully autonomous vehicles than anyone else in the UK”.”

Self-driving assets

Mark Bowen of MB Insolvency was appointed as administrator on 9 June, but parent companies Westfield Technology Group and Potenza Enterprises don’t appear to be included.

Mark Bowen told the local media there had already been an “encouraging level of interest shown in the company’s remaining assets” and that MB Insolvency were “liaising with a number of parties at the moment to see if anybody is interested in the assets and possibly trying to resurrect something here.”

On 14 June, the counter on the Westfield Autonomous Vehicles website clocked a not insubstantial “9,983,709 Autonomous Kilometres” and “6,015,384 Passengers Driven”, and still rising.

Surely that should be of interest to someone.

Navtech Radar puts figures on the benefits of port automation including reduced operating expenses and labour costs

Navtech builds the business case for automation

Regular readers will recognise the name Navtech Radar from our recent update on Oxbotica. In May, the two Oxfordshire-based companies joined forces to launch Terran360, promoted as the world’s first all-weather radar localisation solution for industrial autonomous vehicles.

While self-driving cars await a legislative framework, this ground-breaking technology is already being deployed in off-road settings. Ports are a good example and Madelen Shepherd, Growth Marketing Manager at Navtech, sets out a strong business case.

MS: “Ports are complicated operations and automation can massively improve efficiency, so we’ve been doing some financial analysis on the quantification of value. The benefits fall into three main areas: 1) reduced operating expenses; 2) reduced labour requirements; and 3) productivity increases.”

According to Navtech’s research, benefits resulting from port automation include a 31% reduction in operating expenses, a 40% reduction in labour costs and a 21% increase in productivity.

Navtech on port automation
Automation at ports delivers significant cost savings

MS: “This kind of financial modelling is important for Navtech to demonstrate that our products are viable, but it also provides a compelling argument for automation in general.

“The findings are based on averages from multiple quotes, although there was quite a large range on the reduction in operating expenses, from around 25% up to 50%.

“Currently, only 3% of the world’s ports are automated, but the rate of growth is now exponential. Key drivers for this include the rise of megaships and increasing next day deliveries.

“About 80% of the world’s goods go through ports. There’s already time pressure on everything and the increasing global population equals ever increasing demand.  

“New ports are a massive investment. For example, the first phase of the Tuas project in Singapore, which will create the world’s largest container terminal, is nearly complete and has already cost $1.76bn. There are three more phases to come.

“Of course, any cost benefit analysis must also include risks. If you’re retrofitting an existing port, how much is installation going to disrupt operations? What about the social impact of job losses or a shift in employment profile? Are the new jobs higher paid or more secure? How much time and money would an infrastructure-free solution save in operational downtime during installation compared to an infrastructure dependent solution?

“Automation has created so-called ghost ports, which are largely human-free, so there are clear safety benefits. And with automation you get remote operation, so maybe one person can now operate two straddle carriers.

“Also, operating bulky vehicles like terminal tractors can require an additional member of staff to supervise the movement. By using technological solutions – installing sensors which act beyond human capabilities – that’s no longer necessary.

“Terran360, an infrastructure-free localisation solution, delivers a detailed 360-degree map made up of around 400 slices and uploads this to a cloud-based server. The vehicle drives down a route continually scanning all these different landmarks.

“We’re always looking for new partners in the shipping world and other industrial settings. This kind of radar is perfect for self-driving cars too, so that’s another exciting growth area.”

Inma Martinez, author of new book The Future of the Automotive Industry, on self-driving and connected cars

Street smart cars of the future will drive like a local and diagnose Alzheimer’s

Described by Time magazine as “One of the best talents in human digital behaviour”, Inma Martinez advises business leaders and governments (including the UK’s Department of Culture, Media and Sport) on AI and digitisation. She’s just written a book called The Future of the Automotive Industry, so obviously we had to ask her about driverless cars.

How did you come to specialise in automotive?

IM: “I first got involved in the auto industry in the early 2000s, when BMW recognised that they had to attract female drivers and buyers. We made a series of short films with directors including Ridley Scott and John Woo, starring Clive Owen as The Driver. Guy Ritchie’s had Madonna in it. In those days, I was working as a human factors scientist, looking at how humans use technology.

“Previously, I had been a telecoms engineer specialising in internet protocols. Then, because Nokia bought two of my start-ups, I landed in their innovations department. Together with Intel, we came to the realisation that telecommunications companies had to create alliances with auto manufacturers for vehicle to everything (V2X) and vehicle to infrastructure (V2I) communications.

“I worked for Volkswagen Group designing cars with AI and met Mark Gallagher and all the Formula One crowd. I thought: I have to write about the future of this industry, because in the next five to ten years it will not look anything like today – the massive influence of the Internet of Things (IoT) and AI, sustainability and the green economy. I wrote the book during the pandemic and it came out in June.”

Setting EVs aside, how do you view the autonomous side of things?

IM: “I love the topic, firstly because it needs so much definition. People interchange ‘autonomous’ with ‘self-driving’, but they’re separate things. Unfortunately, the media is not very sophisticated in talking about that.

“For me, it’s something that’s been happening for 15 or 20 years, initially because the industry was pressed to improve safety. You got level one autonomous features, like cruise control and parking assistance, making things easier and safer. Now we’re at level three, and no one understands what on earth is going on!

“I hate it when Tesla put out press releases claiming full self-driving. The PR houses are doing a disservice to the industry because they’re confusing people. I delved into this for the book and came up to the conclusion that we’re not going to see autonomous cars until the regulation is ready for them.

“The European Union put out a good first attempt to define self-driving in 2019, and Japan has changed a lot of its traffic laws to allow Honda to start putting level three cars on the road.

“This will only happen when the legal framework is defined. Otherwise, you have the massive legal issue of who’s at fault in a crash. There’s got to be an effort in the industry to help create these legal frameworks, and I don’t think it’s too complicated.

“The way I see it, we need to differentiate an autonomous car – a level five car which can do literally everything by itself – from self-driving cars which can drive and brake and accelerate and have situational awareness, but which can’t operate constantly by themselves and still need the driver to keep their eyes on the road.”

Proposed changes to the Highway Code talk of drivers not having to pay attention anymore. Is there a danger that regulators could jump the gun?

IM: “That is frightening. You can’t put vehicles on the road driving themselves with just computer vision, you need V2X, roadside units (RSUs), Vehicular Ad Hoc Networks (VANETs) – all the beacons that make roads smart. You need 5G infrastructure, so the car is actually guided by connectedness. This has to do with urban planning and smart cities, not with the automotive industry per se.

“The point is not just whether can we make cars autonomous, it is whether we can make them street smart. The way people drive is different in every country. In Rome, people brake all the time. In Kuala Lumpur, there are mopeds everywhere. So, the car of the future is going to have to be adaptive – the AI, computer vision, all the settings will be different depending on where it is.

“There’s a wonderful thesis that asks whether people are born street smart or whether they get it when they move to a big city. I began to think about autonomous cars driving around big urban centres – they’re going to have to get the pulse of how you drive in a certain city. We need to train the system to learn how to integrate itself.

“We’ve only just begun to consider what autonomous is, and we need to have a bold vision as to what it should be. In my view, we need to make cars smart, not just autonomous.”

What are the main risks in the shift to self-driving?

IM: “We need a legal framework. We need integration into the smart city infrastructure, including telecommunications. We also need definitions.

“Cars look fabulous at the Geneva Motor Show, but nobody talks about them in contexts. Should there be designated lanes for hands-free driving? How are we going to deal with a car parc that is not all digital, that still has a lot of older vehicles?

“Automotive is one of the hardest industries to create innovation because you have the pressure of safety, safety, safety at all costs. For example, nobody’s working on voice commands anymore because it turned out they were a distraction, a nuisance.”

Can you address the challenges specific to the UK?

IM: “Yes – your road network. In the UK you have a lot of 60mph rural roads where you can barely see what’s coming. I drive in Somerset and holy cow! It’s only because humans drive in such a super intuitive way that there aren’t more crashes.

“Perhaps it’s also because your driving test is so rigorous. I did my test at school in a small town in Pennsylvania. The police would make you drive around the car park and give you your licence. That was it.

“Then you have London, which is like no other city. It is a Dickensian city with 21st century vehicles running through it. It is a costly challenge to test smart road infrastructure without creating congestion. Where are the budgets going to come from?”

Anything else you’d like to mention?

IM: “I was speaking to a board member at Volkswagen recently and he said that one of the revelations of the pandemic was that it motivated people to own a car, rather than use public transport, for health and safety reasons, and a certain level of freedom and privacy. People have conversations when driving that they wouldn’t have on a train.

“It is also worth highlighting the prospect of the automotive industry partnering with healthcare companies on predictive medicine – keeping track of your vital biometrics to help detect serious diseases. If you’re going to be sitting in this highly technical environment for two hours a day, data such as the way you check your mirrors can reveal early symptoms of things like Alzheimer’s.

“Connected cars will add another layer of personal profiling and data authentication. Digital fingerprinting companies will be able to see that it’s me on my usual route, doing what I normally do. The cybersecurity will have to be very strong though. Imagine somebody hacking into the traffic management system of a future city – that’d be the ultimate hack.”

And on that very Italian Job note, our time is up. Inma Martinez’s book The Future of the Automotive Industry is out now, or visit inmamartinez.io

As accusations of slow progress fly, the UK self-driving industry is accelerating.

Has the driverless car revolution stalled? Not at Oxbotica

There’s a lot of talk about the shift to autonomous vehicles slowing. Indeed, the question “Why has the driverless car revolution stalled?” was posed in preparation for the upcoming Reuters Automotive 2021 event [at which yours truly is moderating the AV session – sorry, shameless plug!].

In the UK, a good barometer of such things is Oxford-based Oxbotica, and they’ve made several significant announcements recently.

Back in January, we reported on the Oxford University spin-out securing huge BP investment, with CEO, Ozgur Tohumcu, teasing “exciting deals in the pipeline”.

Shortly afterwards, Tohumcu struck a big deal himself, leaving to become MD of Automotive at Amazon Web Services. 

Oxbotica Co-founder and CTO, Professor Paul Newman, was lavish in his praise for ‘Ozo’, saying on LinkedIn: “A chunk of everything we do will always be because of what you made these past few years.”

One major goal was swiftly achieved: offering public AV passenger rides in the UK. Oxbotica was instrumental in this long-awaited milestone, providing the software for Project Endeavour’s well-publicised road trials in Birmingham and London.

Part-funded by the Centre for Connected and Autonomous Vehicles (CCAV), and delivered in partnership with Innovate UK, Project Endeavour applied BSI’s new safety case framework specification, PAS 1881:2020 Assuring the Safety of Automated Vehicle Trials and Testing.

Oxbotica therefore became the first company to have its safety case assessed against these stringent new requirements.

In Greenwich, six modified Ford Mondeos were deployed on a five-mile route to help transport planners and local authorities understand how autonomy can fill mobility gaps and play a role in the long-term sustainability of cities. 

Dr Graeme Smith, Senior Vice President (SVP) at Oxbotica and Director of Project Endeavour, said: “This is a one-of-a-kind research project that is allowing us to learn about the challenges of deploying autonomous vehicles in multiple cities across the UK – a key part of being able to deploy services safely and at scale.

“So far, it has been a real collaborative effort, bringing everyone into the discussion, from local authorities to road safety groups, transport providers and, most importantly, the general public.”

Not everyone was convinced, however. My London carried this barbed comment from local Stephen McKenna: “What’s the purpose it’s filling that we don’t already have?” Clearly, the industry still has work to do on the public perception front.

Impressive new products can only help and, in May, Oxbotica and Navtech Radar launched Terran360, “the world’s first all-weather radar localisation solution for industrial autonomous vehicles”.

This pioneering technology is apparently accurate to 10cm on any vehicle, in any environment, up to 75mph. It has been comprehensively tested in industrial settings, on roads, railways and for marine use.

Phil Avery, Managing Director at Navtech, said: “Thanks to decades of experience in delivering radar solutions for safety and mission critical applications, and together with Oxbotica’s world-leading autonomy software platform, Terran360 is trusted to answer the fundamental question for autonomous vehicles: “Where am I?”, everywhere, every time.”

If that weren’t enough, outside of the UK, Oxbotica has deepened its partnership with BP by running an AV trial at its Lingen refinery in Germany.

Described as “a world-first in the energy sector”, BP now aims to deploy its first AV for monitoring operations at the site by the end of the year. 

Morag Watson, SVP for digital science and engineering at BP, said: “This relationship is an important example of how BP is leveraging automation and digital technology that we believe can improve safety, increase efficiency and decrease carbon emissions in support of our net zero ambition.”

So much for AV progress stalling!