Drive.ai is on the road towards acquisition

One of the more interesting autonomous vehicle start-ups has reportedly hired investment bank Jefferies to search out a potential buyer for the firm recently valued at $200 million.

According to The Information (subscription required), the Texas-based, 100-person start-up is searching for a buyer, and while it operates in a relatively niche market in the long-run, it’s image recognition software could be a cunning purchase. It does also have the accolade as being one of the only autonomous driving services which is up and running, available to the general public.

The Drive.ai team has not confirmed the search as such, though a spokesperson has highlighted the team is always on the look-out for strategic partners.

For those who are looking to enter into the autonomous vehicles space, or bolster their capabilities, this could turn out to be a very shrew purchase. With a commercially viable business model and software which could be integrated into other aspects of the business, we suspect this might be a firm which will be of interest to numerous parties, especially with a reasonable low price tag.

Last year, the firm raised $77 million in equity financing, valuing the business at $200 million, though the final number would almost certainly be higher. Other autonomous vehicle start-ups have gone for more, while Aurora Innovation is set to receive $530 million in financing from the likes of Sequoia Capital and Amazon.

However, the limitations of the business model might worry some. Drive.ai is currently trialling autonomous vans, which drive along-specific routes, and can be hailed by potential customers through an app. It is one of the few services available to the general public, though it has no-where near the same footprint or monetization potential as autonomous taxis.

That said, the limited nature of this service might prove to be an advantage. Such is the dramatic change which would be required to ensure autonomous taxis can operate in today’s environments, these services will not emerge at scale for some time. Not only do you have to advance the technology side of these machines, but also make updates to infrastructure, regulations and safety principles, as well as considering the impact to the insurance world. The red-tape surrounding autonomous vehicles in parallel segments could significantly slow down progress.

The limited nature and controlled exposure of these vehicles could be an option many governments would consider giving the greenlight to in a much shorter time window. For the right company, this acquisition could prove to be a very shrewd acquisition.

Telefonica and Seat get the MWC wheels turning

Telefonica is fuelling the hype as we motor towards MWC with connected car announcements alongside Spanish automotive giant Seat.

In an early effort to drive traffic towards its stand, Telefonica has carpooled with Seat to give the green light to three new innovations in the connected vehicles race. While there are sceptics who would want to curb autonomous vehicles enthusiasm, the duo is racing towards a happy middle-ground with three assisted driving use cases.

Firstly, the team will introduce pedestrian detection capabilities, which will allow traffic lights to sense the presence of pedestrians with thermal cameras, before relaying this information onto cars in the nearby area. Display panels will be able to inform the driver of potential risks on the road.

Secondly, connected bicycles equipped with a precise geolocation will notify vehicles in the area when the rider decides to turn right. The bikes will be detected by ultra-wideband beacons placed along the road, and should there be a risk of collision, the driver in the car will once again be notified.

While both these ideas will be powered by edge-computing, the final usecase will rely on direct communication interface. Should visibility be particularly low, stationary vehicles would detect moving vehicles, emergency lights would be turned on while the driver would, again, be notified on the display board.

These usecases might not be on the same level as the glories of autonomous vehicles, but there is a satisfactory amount of realism on display. Autonomous vehicles are not going to be on our roads for a long-time, and while that does not mean we should not continue to fine tune the technology, there has to be a focus on improving road safety today. This is exactly what is being done here.

Another similar concept is being developed in MIT. Here, an AI application analyses the way pedestrians are walking to understand whether there might be any risks. This sort of analysis is something we all do subconsciously, but a very useful and important addition to the connected car mix.

Using lidar and stereo camera systems, the AI estimates direction and pace, but also takes pose and gait into consideration. Pose and gait not only inform the pace and direction, but also give clues to future intentions. For instance, if someone is glancing over their shoulder, it could be an indication they are about to step into the road.

Looking further into the future, when autonomous taxis might be a real thing, this could also be incredibly useful. Of course, the simplest way to hail a taxi in this futuristic age will be through an app, but if the vehicle can see and understand an outstretched arm is a signal for a taxi, it would be a useful skill to incorporate into the AI.

All of these ideas are not only relevant for the long-term ambitions of the automotive industry but also very applicable today. Connectivity and AI can be incredibly beneficial for human-operated vehicles, especially with the advancements of edge-computing and leaning on the high bandwidth provided by 5G. Not everything has to be super-futuristic, and it’s nice to see a bit of realism.

UK goes through the gears in autonomous driving race

The US, China and Japan have been moving ahead swiftly in the race to put autonomous vehicles on public roads, but new trials in West London perhaps indicate the UK is not that far behind.

Following successful trials through Oxford town-centre, a new initiative has been announced by the DRIVEN consortium, an Innovate UK funded initiative focused on introducing Level 4 autonomous vehicles. This project will be mapping the streets of Hounslow, expecting to launch trials in the area by this Christmas, before planning to run a fleet of autonomous vehicles between Oxford and London in 2019.

This initiative will be led by Oxford University spin-off Oxbotica, an autonomous vehicle software provider, but also supported by insurance partner AXA, while Nominet will be testing data transfer between vehicles and consortium partners as part of the development of a robust cyber security model for self-driving vehicles.

“Being autonomous before Christmas will showcase the huge amount of work Oxbotica’s expert team of engineers has completed since the DRIVEN consortium was established,” said Graeme Smith, CEO of Oxbotica. “These trials further demonstrate to the wider UK public that connected and autonomous vehicles will play an important role in the future of transport. This milestone shows the advanced state of our capabilities and firmly keeps us on the road to providing the technology needed to revolutionise road travel.”

While this might excite (or terrify) the locals, this is not the only self-driving news to emerge out of the UK in the last week.

Up in Scotland, the country’s first self-driving buses will be tested through a 14-mile route between Fife and Edinburgh across the Forth Bridge. The single-decker buses will require a human driver to be present at all times, though unmanned tests will take place in the depot parking the vehicles and also taking them through the washing machine.

Back in London, cab firm Addison Lee and Jaguar Land Rover have also announced trials through the city. Addison Lee hopes to have the entirety of the Borough of Greenwich covered with a service by 2021, while Jaguar Land Rover also plan to deliver a ‘premium mobility service’ across the capital using driverless Discovery cars. Details are relatively thin for the moment, though it is certainly encouraging to see such trials emerge.

As with most technology developments, the UK has generally been perceived to be behind the trend. In this instance, the US has been leading the way, with numerous trials across the country, though Japan and China have also been steaming ahead. These trials should not suggest the UK is on par with these technology powerhouses, but at least it is seemingly leading the chasing peloton. The tests also offer a bit more credibility to the Government ambition of having autonomous vehicles on the road by 2021.

The ambitious claim came from UK Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond last year, promising ‘genuine’ driverless vehicles on the road by 2021. We are still sceptical as to how much of a revolution these vehicles will actually be, public incredulity and resistance to change will perhaps make this more of an evolution over decades, though this will not score the appropriate level of political points.

A recent survey from OpenText suggests 31% of UK respondents believe there will be more autonomous vehicles on the roads than human-driven ones over the next 10-15 years, though this is down from the 66% who answered the same question positively 12 months ago. In 2017, 24% said they would feel comfortable being a passenger in an autonomous car, yet this figure has dropped to 19% in this year’s edition. It seems the excitement and confidence in the technology is still not there.

This is an area which the government and industry are yet to tackle; the general public. Irrelevant as to whether the technology is advancing at lightning speed, without consumer acceptance the technology will never be a success. These are after all the people who will buy the vehicles, or choose between a driverless and human-powered taxi. Without approval of the general public, this technology will fail.

The UK is still very much a fast-follower when it comes to technology adoption, though this is not necessarily the worst position to be in. As it stands, ‘best of the rest’ is probably an appropriate title as the US, China and Japan pave the way, but progress is being made.

O2 bags Midlands driverless gig

O2 has announced a partnership with Wireless Infrastructure Group (WIG) to deliver connectivity for driverless vehicle test bed trials in the West Midlands.

With the UK government foolishly promising driverless cars will be on the roads by 2021, this is one of a number of trials located in the Midlands to make the wayward ambition a reality. As part of the agreement, O2 claims it will deliver Europe’s largest fibre connected small cell network along a 50-mile route that runs through Birmingham and Coventry.

“Following our successful deployment of the UK’s first centralised radio network (C-RAN) in Aberdeen, in partnership with WIG, we will be using this same cutting-edge technology across what we expect to be Europe’s largest fibre connected small cell network,” said Brendan O’Reilly, CTO at O2. “Mobile powers our modern world and 5G has even more potential to move Britain forward which is why we’re excited to be working together with WIG to continue to build this technology into the fabric of our cities and communities.”

“We are delighted to be working with O2 and WIG to test autonomous vehicles on roads here in the West Midlands,” said Andy Street, Mayor of the West Midlands. “As the heart of the UK’s future mobility research and development, and the UK’s first region-wide 5G testbed, the West Midlands is well-positioned to create thousands of new jobs in the industries of the future.”

With the UK desperate to prove it is at the forefront of the technology world, the UK government has promised driverless cars will be commercially available by 2021, a laughable ambition when you think of the work, both from a technological and administrative perspective, which will have to be done ahead of this point. The Midlands is certainly a beneficiary here, as the region has been attempted to create a regionalised technology hub around electric and driverless vehicles.

We’re sceptical driverless cars will be anywhere near a reality in the near future, though at least it is another usecase for 5G ROI.

BBWF 2018: Autonomous cars are progressing, but still a lot of work to do

Predicting when self-driving cars will hit the streets is turning into a real-life version of roulette, which is always a worrying sign.

Last year, UK Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond set out his bold ambitions; autonomous vehicles to be on UK streets by 2021. If you listen to those testing out the solutions across the world, this is certainly achievable. But then again, there are always the neigh-sayers.

At Broadband World Forum in Berlin, Alexandros Kaloxylos, Assistant Professor at University of the Peloponnese, was one of those who poured a little bit of water on the ambitious fires of progress. From Kaloxylos’ perspective, there is still a lot of work which needs to be done on developing network slicing for autonomous vehicles, and also on the roaming side of things as well.

Looking first at the network slicing, this is an important aspect of the technology as these are applications which are safety orientated. Cars can hurt people, which is why network slicing becomes paramount. Having a ‘dedicated network’ to facilitate the communications of these vehicles is an important step towards the realisation of this dream.

This in itself is a problem, as Kaloxylos pointed out the specific V2X (vehicle-to-everything) usecase for network slicing has not been discussed or examined closely enough. This is a different type of usecase and cannot be bundled together with the rest of the exciting applications. Remote surgery is another excellent example of a usecase which needs network slicing, but the operating theatre does not move, vehicles will, and they will very quickly. The industry has addressed this challenge yet.

The second challenge which was highlighted during the session is roaming. If an autonomous vehicle moves from Germany to Switzerland for instance, or from one network to another, will the handover be efficient? As it stands, this handover can take up to seven seconds. When 20 m/s latency has been targeted for the successful implementation of autonomous vehicles, this is clearly not good enough.

Some might be excited about autonomous vehicles, but it is worth getting a reality check every now and then.

Intel takes the autonomous euphoria to the seas

Self-driving cars might not be with us for decades, but that hasn’t stopped Intel from partnering Rolls-Royce to take the autonomous trends to the high-seas.

The new partnership between the pair will combine the engineering know-how of Rolls-Royce and Intel’s AI smarts to create autonomous ships. With 90% of world trade is carried out by international shipping we’re surprised this idea hasn’t be raised earlier.

“We’re delighted to sign this agreement with Intel, and look forward to working together on developing exciting new technologies and products, which will play a big part in enabling the safe operation of autonomous ships,” said Kevin Daffey, Director, Engineering & Technology and Ship Intelligence at Rolls Royce. “This collaboration can help us to support ship owners in the automation of their navigation and operations, reducing the opportunity for human error and allowing crews to focus on more valuable tasks.”

“Delivering these systems is all about processing, moving and storing huge volumes of data, and that is where Intel comes in,” said Lisa Spelman, GM of Xeon Products at Intel. “Rolls-Royce is a key driver of innovation in the shipping industry and together we are creating the foundation for safe shipping operations around the world.”

While it might still be decades before autonomous vehicles hit the roads in any notable fashion, the seas and oceans seem a perfect environment for the autonomous technology. Not only do the ships rarely have to content with human beings crossing their paths, the dangers of shipping and the premeditated natures of shipping routes seem to make it a simpler task. We’re sure we are completely underestimating the complexities of the operations, but the biggest challenge for self-driving cars will be dealing with human operated vehicles and pedestrians; humans are unpredictable.

In terms of how the technology will work, the ships will have dedicated Xeon Gold servers onboard, turning them into floating data centres with heavy computation and AI inference capabilities. Unlike cars, these are vehicles which do not have to worry as much about being weight and space efficient so the compute problem becomes simpler. Rolls Royce’s Intelligent Awareness System uses AI-powered sensor fusion and decision making to provide situational awareness to the vessels, improving safety and allowing the ships to detect objects several kilometres away, while the data collected by the vessels will be stored using Intel’ 3D NAND SSDs, acting as a ‘black box’ in case of an accident.

Exeter and Leeds win National Infrastructure Commission prize

With the technology world dreaming of autonomous vehicles, everyone has to remember perfecting the technology is only part of the battle. The roads have to be updated as well.

This is a concept the National Infrastructure Commission has understood, and looked to address. The national Roads for the Future competition looks to address these very problems with a £50,000 prize fund to fuel new ideas. It might not be an astronomical figure, but the lessons learned will certainly be useful.

And the winners are… City Science based in Exeter and the Leeds City Council.

“The vehicles of tomorrow will be very different to those we see around us today. We need to make sure our roads are ready for this revolution,” said Chairman of the National Infrastructure Commission Sir John Armitt. “With such a strong shortlist narrowing down the entries was no easy task, but the ideas put forward by City Science and Leeds set them apart. I’ve been really pleased by the enthusiasm for our competition, and I hope it leads to ever-greater interest not just in the technology in the vehicles, but also in the roads they will travel on.”

In Exeter, City Science will examine how sections of roads in urban areas could initially be dedicated to driverless vehicles, as a key step in kick-starting their take-up and integrating them safely into the existing transport network. Over in Leeds, the council will investigate how the data generated from digitally connected cars could be used to improve traffic light sequencing, allowing highway authorities to better manage traffic on their roads and reduce tailbacks.

“Over the past three months, this project has given us the opportunity to explore the enormous potential of CAVs and set out a tangible vision to deliver their benefits on the UK’s roads.,” said Laurence Oakes-Ash, CEO of City Science. “It is essential that we get the rollout of CAVs right, using them in ways that can integrate with mass transit, promote healthy cities and create successful communities.”

“While digitally connected and autonomous vehicles are still a long way down the road, they have the potential to offer massive benefits in major cities like Leeds,” said Leeds City Council executive member for regeneration, transport and planning, Councillor Richard Lewis. “We look forward to continuing our work with all our partners and stakeholders to turn this innovation into reality.”

The other short-listed entries were how CAVs can be best deployed to beat congestion and improve the air quality (entry from Immense), Arup’s entry assessed the future management of the side of the road through the introduction of flexible kerb space, while Aecom’s idea was to investigate how technology can enable traffic lights to ‘talk’ to vehicles.

Back in January, the National Infrastructure Commission, alongside Highways England and Innovate UK, launched the Roads for the Future competition received 81 entries with ideas for how the UK’s road network could be adapted to maximise the potential benefits these new vehicles could bring. These ideas could have investigated any aspect of the segment such as new travel opportunities, freeing up time focused on driving, and helping to improve safety.

The competition itself followed the release the first-ever National Infrastructure Assessment, a report recommendations for how the identified infrastructure needs to be altered or adapted for autonomous vehicles. Some of these recommendations included that the Government devise a National Broadband Plan by Spring 2019, to deliver full fibre connections across the whole of the country, including those in rural areas.

Technology is obviously critical for the development and adoption of autonomous vehicles, as is the 4G/5G infrastructure, but it is nice to see the roads are being considered as well.

West Midlands bags UK 5G test-bed prize

The West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA) has been selected as the region for the UK’s first multi-city 5G test bed with trials set to kick-off next year.

The Urban Connected Communities Project will make use of a £25 million investment from the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, as well as £25 million from regional partners, trialling new 5G applications and services at scale. A further £25 million could be made available to the initiative in the future, with Birmingham, Coventry and Wolverhampton the three primary locations for the trials.

“5G has the potential to dramatically transform the way we go about our daily lives, and we want the citizens of the UK to be amongst the first to experience all the opportunities and benefits this new technology will bring,” said Minister for Digital, Margot James. “The West Midlands Testbed, which is the first of its kind anywhere in the world, will be instrumental in helping us realise this ambition.”

The West Midlands Combined Authorities bid has an initial focus on the health, construction and automotive sectors, with its overarching ambition to help drive economic growth. One of the consistent messages from the government over the last few years has been the ambition to spread the wealth more evenly throughout the UK using 5G as a catalyst. The West Midlands is one region which has embraced this concept, aiming to establish a global tech hub for autonomous and electric vehicles and components through 5G benefits.

“This announcement is game-changing for the West Midlands economy,” said Andy Street, Mayor of the West Midlands. “This will be the backbone of our future economy and society.

“The potential of this technology is endless  – and we will enjoy the benefits first. From monitoring the health of babies and the elderly, to the way out people are linked to the economy of the future, the way companies do business, the way we deliver public services, the experience of travellers on public transport and the way we deliver City of Culture and the Commonwealth Games – everything can be made better thanks to the power of this technology.”

The Midlands has already been carving a name for itself in the digital economy with Coventry one of the UK hubs for autonomous vehicles. Alongside Milton Keynes, Coventry is one of the main hubs for UK Autodrive, the largest of three separate government-backed consortia to test autonomous vehicles. As part of the initiative, Jaguar Land Rover and Tata Motors European Technical Centre trialled the technology in Coventry city centre during November 2017, the first such trials on the open road in the UK. Some of the features being trialled in this initiative included Intersection Priority Management, Green Light Optimal Speed Advisory, Collaborative Parking and Intersection Collision Warning.

Moving forward, Jaguar Land Rover will continue to be an active partner of the region as part of the driverless push, while health care will also be taken into the digital economy with ‘connected ambulances’. Paramedic crews at an incident could access specialist advice at the scene through video conferencing with consultants or other clinical specialists, while streaming of patient data from ambulance en route to hospital could help inform the immediate care patients receive on arrival.

Other initiatives include the development of intelligent CCTV, with AI monitoring the feed and able to identify potential incidents. Police Officers can be more efficiently directed to incidents, while the AI could provide the opportunity for far greater coverage than is possible at present with human operatives.

While sceptics might have assumed the government promises of investments in digital infrastructure was nothing but hot air, it has been much more generous over the last couple of weeks. Aside from this announcement, the UK Government also released an additional £95 million to the Local Full Fibre Networks (LFFN) Challenge Fund to close the digital divide. Perhaps the bank accounts are starting to creak open.

Uber urged to sell self-driving unit; are investors stupid or greedy?

Just as transportation disruptor Uber unveils its financials for the latest quarter, investors have reportedly been pressing the management team to sell-off its self-driving unit, a move that’s either short-sighted or short-termist.

According to The Information, with losses piling high in the self-driving unit, reportedly $125-200 million a quarter for the last 18 months, investors are recommending the management team sell off assets and focus on the here and now. It doesn’t matter that self-driving cars are the future, or that the potential to kill Uber as a business lies in technology, investors don’t want the losses on the spreadsheets anymore.

In terms of the cash being spent on developments in the self-driving unit, it is a notable hole to fill. Even with Uber increasing revenues 51% year-on-year for the quarter to $2.7 billion, it is a lot. However, those who are suggesting the firm ignore the self-driving euphoria clearly don’t understand this is not a choice; for Uber to survive in the long-run, self-driving cars have to be a priority.

Uber exists today because it was a major disruptor to a long-time established area of society. It made taxis accessible once again, using technology to address pain-points, firstly, the complications of finding a car at 2am and, secondly, the price. Those who benefited from the status quo protested the presence of Uber, though the consumer was thrilled. In a cash-conscious society, offering a good service for less will always be a popular idea.

This is why investments in self-driving vehicles is imperative at Uber. If it doesn’t nail the self-driving experience, someone will come along and disrupt the market. Uber and similar services will soon become the status quo in Western societies, and self-driving cars will become the norm at some point in the future. This point might not be for five or ten or even twenty years, there are a lot of parallel hurdles, but if Uber is not ready with its own proposition, it will decline in popularity quickly.

Removing drivers is the next step to make the taxi service industry cheaper and more attractive to the consumer; it will happen, the only question which remains is when. For Uber, it is a case of disrupt or be disrupted. It has benefitted from a technology revolution in the taxi segment, and the next one is clear.

The investors who are calling for the sale of the self-driving unit are either short-sighted, unable to recognise trends in the industry, or short-termist, simply seeking a pay-out over the next couple of quarters with no eye on long-term interests. Neither is a particularly attractive description.

Ford pledges $4bn to drive forward autonomous vehicles business

Ford has announced the creation of a new organization and $4 billion in investment through to 2023 to accelerate the firms efforts in developing autonomous vehicles.

The new business, which will be known as Ford Autonomous Vehicles LLC, will include Ford’s self-driving systems integration, autonomous vehicle research and advanced engineering, AV transportation-as-a-service network development, user experience, business strategy and business development teams. It will also be structured to allow for investment from third parties.

“Ford has made tremendous progress across the self-driving value chain – from technology development to business model innovation to user experience,” said Jim Hackett, CEO of Ford Motor Company. “Now is the right time to consolidate our autonomous driving platform into one team to best position the business for the opportunities ahead.”

Sherif Marakby will head up the new business for the moment, reporting into Marcy Klevorn, the President of Ford’s Mobility group, with a hope aligning the two areas will improve development. The new group will also hold Ford’s ownership stake in Argo AI, the company’s Pittsburgh-based partner for self-driving system development. It should also be worth noting the $4 billion figure includes the $1 billion already to committed to Argo AI last year. Despite the misleading PR play from Ford, it is still a notable pledge.

Spinning off business unit to allow more freedoms in the autonomous vehicles world is starting to look like a popular move after General Motors did the same with Cruise in May. Cruise, which was initially bought by General Motors in March 2016 for $581 million to bolster the software capabilities, also managed to attract attention from Masayoshi Son’s SoftBank Vision Fund, which committed to a $2.25 billion investment.

While rules, regulations, the ecosystem, infrastructure or the consumer, are not ready for the world of autonomous vehicles, progress is being made. General Motors filed a Safety Petition with the Department of Transportation for its fourth-generation self-driving Cruise AV, which it believes will be production ready by 2019. With General Motors making rapid progress, the cash injection and spin off from Ford becomes less surprising.

Ford expects its vehicles to be production ready by 2021, though with General Motors and Google’s Waymo both aiming to hit the roads before this point, Ford has some catching up to do. Realistically, although the technology might be ready, mass market penetration is likely to be decades away. Aside from the fact few are likely to swallow the substantial price tag as soon as the vehicles are available, there is still a huge amount of progress to be made in parallel spaces.

Rules and regulations will have to be-written to start, and the insurance industry will have to be restructured to account for less intervention from humans. The question also needs to answered on the allocate criminal and civil responsibility should an incident occur; should the owner of the vehicle be responsible, or should the automotive manufacturers be blamed as they own the AI? Cybersecurity is also a massive oversight. Finally, consumers need to be comfortable handing over control to a computer. We suspect the latter will take a huge amount of time and PR campaigns.