Google, the internet search giant, caused a lot of excitement across the world a year ago with the unveiling of its self-driving prototype. Seeing that, the UK government decided to put the country back on the automotive map with its own programme which is only just hitting full throttle.
“Up until then, whenever anybody thought of autonomous driving, they thought of the Google car,” says Tim Armitage, project director of UK Autodrive, one of three projects that won funding in December 2014 and began physical work on driverless cars this month.
It was last summer that the government felt that the UK was an “ideal centre” for building automotive technologies of the future. It had a combination of a friendly legal framework, and a variety of traffic and weather conditions. So it held a competition. UK Autodrive, a consortium of 15 local authorities, businesses and universities was borne out of that.
Claire Perry, parliamentary under-secretary at Department for Transport (DfT), in a review published soon after outlined the UK’s advantages. “We have some of the best innovators, engineers, facilities and opportunities for automotive investment in the world. And we have the best possible framework to encourage the largest global businesses to come to the UK to develop and test their technologies,” she said.
The reality of that is anything but straightforward. According to Reuters’ recent study of innovation in the automotive industry, not a single one out of the top 10 innovative companies was British in nature. Japan took half of the available spots and three belonged to German giants. The UK had a role to play in the 20th century with companies such as Jaguar Land Rover, Mini and Vauxhall. All three are now owned by foreign conglomerates, and production numbers have risen year-on-year in the last five years in the UK, thanks to their new parent companies and domestic presence of other international manufacturers.
Perry said that total production last year reached 1.5 million cars and that put the island nation third behind Spain and Germany in Europe. She labelled the industry as “thriving” and the UK as “a leader” when it comes to autonomous technologies.
Meanwhile, Japan recorded 8.2 million passenger vehicles – second only to China with Germany next at 5.6 million. Secondly over the last decade or so, automotive innovation has increasingly become more and more about code. Not since Alan Turing has Britain seen a return of its computing heydays.
Not since Alan Turing has Britain seen a return of its computing heydays.To be fair, American and Japanese companies – Ford, General Motors (GM) and Nissan – have based research and development centres in the UK. GM had the largest number of patent filings in the autonomous driving sector in 2013, as per latest figures from Reuters’ report. While Britons may be involved in some capacity, it is the non-British companies that benefit more.
UK Autodrive is an attempt to change that, to put the country back on the automotive map. Oxford and Cambridge – partners in UK Autodrive – regularly feature in lists of top universities around the world, especially for research and computer science. Leading the consortium is Arup, a design and engineering firm, boasting a portfolio as diverse as the countries of Europe.
Armitage has been at Arup for over 15 years. During his time, he has gone from vehicle crash worthiness, sustainability projects for the railways to correcting the wobbliness of the Millennium Bridge over the Thames River. The decision to join UK Autodrive was extending a partnership that came out of an already existing project. “We were involved in doing innovating transport solutions in Milton Keynes for 6-7 years. They were interested in UK Autodrive and asked us if we would pull a consortium together and bid for this competition. That’s how we got involved,” says Armitage.
For Milton Keynes, the advantages are threefold. Peter Marland, leader of the Milton Keynes council, believes it not only provides additional automotive options for the citizens but also integrates well into their smart city philosophy. “It’s partly synergy and partly that such programs are well-suited to Milton Keynes. The city is built on a grid structure and it’s quite easy when it comes to scaling up various tests,” he says.
The added benefit of the project is that it helps bring investment into Milton Keynes. “In terms of the UK, automotive companies are investing 20 times more money into driverless cars as opposed to electric vehicles. That helps you understand how much this market is going to be worth as it develops. And for us to have a part of that, which will be a billion-dollar market, on a R&D level, it’s good for our economy which is good for Britain,” says Marland.
The last bit falls squarely within the goals and aims of Innovate UK, a non-departmental body reporting to the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS). Rechristened in 2014 from Technology Strategy Board and termed the UK’s “innovation agency”, Innovate UK funds and supports businesses for innovative ideas. The driverless cars competition is its pet project, with a total of £18m invested across three ideas. The money is put in by DfT and BIS who are working closely with the participants in the interest of their partners and their own.
At the same time, most if not all involved feel the government also represents the biggest challenge. “Technology is streets ahead of legislation in some areas. We have to work with government to get legislation updated with current time,” says Armitage.
Among the consortium is also an international law firm in the form of Wragge Lawrence Graham & Co. Stuart Young, partner and head of the automotive division, says: “Most of the legislation and the compensation for accidents is based around a driver being in control of the car. Speeding legislation talks about a person allowing the car to go above the speed limit. Accident legislation is based around fault. All of that needs a hard rethink.”
In consideration of a hard rethink is also the topic of insurance and liability. Armitage is quick to downplay the problems: “They see autonomous cars as something new and something they will adapt to. They don’t see it as the end of insurance companies.”
Automotive insurance is big for the industry, it accounts for almost 40 per cent of the insurance sector. For the UK itself, it was worth £18.9m last year, according to figures provided by the Association of British Insurers (ABI).
Milind Joshi is executive director at Rhombus Consulting, a company that provides management consulting for insurance agencies. He has been in the industry for over 30 years, and has worked with AIG and AXA among others. He thinks that confusion and even apprehension is commonplace when it comes to driverless cars. “These are natural reactions to a disruptive technology. Insurance is a secondary industry and whenever there is a major change in the primary sector, the secondary industry takes some time to adjust to that,” he adds.
The DfT noted in its report on driverless cars that 94 per cent of all road accidents are the cause of “human error”. Reduction in the rate of accidents can only be a good thing for all involved, but the attribution of fault otherwise is a topic of some interest. “The owner is using the vehicle on the road, the owner owns the property. Any blame will rest with the owner of the car, notwithstanding who or what was in control of the car’s movements. This will be a challenge for the law makers to draft suitable financial responsibility sections,” says Joshi.
Young thinks that as autonomous cars become the norm, people will start paying for the trip and not the car. “At that point, the burden of insurance will shift from the individual owner to the companies that own the infrastructure. And as a consumer, you might find that you’re paying a part of the insurance but only because it’s built into the cost of the journey,” he says.
“They cannot all own a car. How do we get them around quickly and effectively?”What of the ownership model then? The boom in automotive purchasing started in the 1950s, owing to rising living standards and declining car prices. According to government statistics, the number of cars in London quadrupled between 1950 and 1970. By the end of the century, there were 21 million private vehicles on British roads.
But there has been a change of events since then. “Manufacturers are aware that car ownership in the 18-35 bracket has been falling consistently for years. For most people, a car is the second most expensive thing they buy in a lifetime. They [car companies] are acutely aware that selling one car to every individual is a model of the past,” says Marland.
DfT’s latest report on vehicle registrations tells a similar story. Car ownership slowed down in mid-2000s and after the recession of 2008-09, even though the total number of cars continues to grow, the industry has not seen the glory days of the previous century.
“The 20th century was built around the freedom of owning a motor vehicle,” says Marland. By latest UN estimates, world population is expected to touch 9 billion by 2045. Six billion will live in urban areas. “They cannot all own a car. How do we get them around quickly and effectively? That’s what manufacturers are grappling with, that’s what governments are grappling with. That’s why the [UK] Autodrive scheme is good because it brings together all those sectors to think and work out solutions,” he adds.
Over half a dozen companies – Jaguar Land Rover, Ford, Tata Motors, RDM Group, MIRA, Oxbotica and Transport Systems Catapult – are lending their technological and automotive expertise to UK Autodrive. What may seem as an advantage on the surface can turn very quickly into a problem, Marland warns.
“Car companies are generally very protective of their bespoke engineering. What we don’t want to end up with is some kind of Betamax VHS or Blu-ray HD-DVD situation, where they have all developed their own thing but it won’t play on each other’s models,” he says.
The vision for UK Autodrive at the end of three years is to provide Milton Keynes and Coventry – the two participating local authorities – with a functioning system of driverless cars that will provide their citizens with an alternative form of public transport.
“We would imagine that these pods will be summoned by an app on a smartphone. The user would typically say pick me up here in five minutes and the pod would turn up pretty much, with two empty seats,” says Armitage.
That is slightly reminiscent of the ways of a certain San Francisco-based ride-hailing giant which is now present in over 300 cities across the world. Despite innumerous protests and lawsuits, Uber is estimated to generate $10bn in revenue by the end of 2015. But the company isn’t resting on its laurels. In February this year, TechCrunch reported that Uber was opening a research facility in Pittsburgh, USA that would look into developing autonomous cars.
Changes in legislation pose the longest delay in getting driverless cars to the market. And what gets approved in the USA could take years to be given the green light from the UK government. With the DfT and BIS literally invested in UK Autodrive, it’s fair to assume they will want to see it succeed. But joining hands with a cab company is more complicated than it seems.
UK Autodrive, in its own sense, is only a three-year program and can hold no intellectual property (IP) as it is funded by public money, notes Armitage. “But some of the IP around vehicles, telematics and sensing systems will belong to different people. For example, Oxbotica a technology spin-out from Oxford University will hold lots of licenses of the technology on behalf of the university’s mobile robotics group,” he adds.
But before we get used to a London full of robots ferrying human beings to their doorsteps, there’s work to be done on how these revolutionary changes are perceived.
“The mindset of people is to automatically go to a concept of is it safe whereas actually it’s intrinsically safer than humans driving,” says Marland. He refers to the air travel industry as an example, where the plane is on auto-pilot for 90 per cent of the flight time. “The majority of incidents happen during take-off and landing, when there is a human being controlling the system,” he says.
When cars first took to the streets in Britain in the 19th century, the law stated that these new “horseless carriages” could not travel over 4mph in the countryside and 2mph in the city. In addition to this restrictions, a man with a red flag had to walk in front of the car at all times as a sign of warning. “People do take time to get their heads around certain concepts, but if you can show them the benefits they get on board real quick,” says Marland.
these vehicles will be immune to the effects of alcoholSpeaking of benefits, the average driver in England spends 235 hours driving every year. “That is the equivalent of six working weeks,” noted Perry, in her report for DfT. On top of freeing the individual from non-productive monotonous chores, driverless cars will open up access to cars for everyone – including the elderly, disabled and ones without a driving licence.
Much more importantly, these vehicles will be immune to the effects of that nth glass of alcohol that you regret having, unable to disobey traffic signals on purpose, not busy finishing up that really important text message or endanger the safety of others on the road through sheer recklessness.
With more than £17m in total investment, UK Autodrive is the biggest of the three projects on the island nation and rightfully carries the biggest hopes. Marland knows that they won’t perfect autonomous driving in three years. “The government funding is for that period but it is envisioned to continue on after that into real-world scenarios,” he adds.
The arrival of driverless cars on the streets of Britain has been welcomed by the state and has the potential to succeed. But it’s safe to say none of these robots will be engaging you in a discussion about the Turing Test any time soon.