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.

Traffic authority’s report on Tesla crash could hit autonomous development hard

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has released its preliminary findings after investigating a Tesla Model X crash while the vehicle was in autopilot mode.

Extenuating circumstances have been identified, though these are related to the death of the driver not the autonomous driving system, in the report which could have some very damaging repercussions to the development of autonomous vehicles. In the final second before the crash, the vehicle, which was under control of the autopilot, accelerated from 62 to 70.8 mph, while no evidence of pre-crash braking or evasive steering movement was detected.

“The NTSB continues to work with the California Highway Patrol and the California Department of Transportation to collect and analyse data, including all pertinent information relating to the vehicle operations and roadway configuration,” the report states. “All aspects of the crash remain under investigation as the NTSB determines the probable cause, with the intent of issuing safety recommendations to prevent similar crashes.”

Looking through the recorded performance data, the autopilot system was engaged on four separate occasions during the 32-minute trip, including a continuous operation for the last 18 minutes 55 seconds prior to the crash. During this period, the vehicle provided two visual alerts and

one auditory alert for the driver to place his hands on the steering wheel, all made at least 15 minutes prior to the incident. 8 seconds prior to the crash, the Tesla was following a lead vehicle and was traveling about 65 mph, before it began a left steering motion. At 3 seconds prior to the crash and up to the time of impact with the crash attenuator, the Tesla’s speed increased from 62 to 70.8 mph, with no pre-crash braking or evasive steering movement detected. In the last six seconds, the vehicle did not detect the driver’s hands on the steering wheel.

Testing of autonomous vehicles are still required to have humans in the driver seat right now, and Tesla might well point to inaction as the cause of the crash as opposed to failure of its system, though the report will not enforce the insistence autonomous vehicles are safer than human operated ones. This has been the fuel powering the campaign to normalise autonomous vehicles in the general public, though there have been a few incidents in recent months to falter this mission.

Aside from this incident, an Uber vehicle in self-drive mode struck a woman walking with her bicycle on the pavement in Arizona in March. Since that incident, Uber has suspended all self-driving projects in the state.

The development autonomous vehicles is a sensitive movement, as the technology is strongly dependent on trust. Regulators and users have to trust the technology to make safe and effective decisions, in a timely and logical manner. Removing the element of control from the driver is a big step for everyone involved. Any incident involved an autonomous vehicle will put considerable dents in the progress of the technology.

Softbank drives forward Vision Fund with $2.25bn GM autonomous vehicle investment

General Motors has become the latest business to catch the attention of Masayoshi Son’s SoftBank Vision Fund, as its autonomous vehicles subsidiary, Cruise, receives a $2.25 billion boost.

The cash will be invested into Cruise in two tranches. At the closing of the transaction, the Vision Fund will invest $900 million, alongside $1.1 billion from parent-company GM, while the remaining $1.35 billion will be invested at the point Cruise’s technology is ready for commercial deployment, this being forecast for early-2019. The total investment will see the Vision Fund holding a 19.6% stake in Cruise.

“Our Cruise and GM teams together have made tremendous progress over the last two years,” said GM CEO Mary Barra. “Teaming up with SoftBank adds an additional strong partner as we pursue our vision of zero crashes, zero emissions and zero congestion.”

“GM has made significant progress toward realizing the dream of completely automated driving to dramatically reduce fatalities, emissions and congestion,” said Michael Ronen, Managing Partner of SoftBank Investment Advisers. “The GM Cruise approach of a fully integrated hardware and software stack gives it a unique competitive advantage. We are very impressed by the advances made by the Cruise and GM teams, and are thrilled to help them lead a historic transformation of the automobile industry.”

The Cruise business was initially founded in 2013, before entering Y Combinator in 2014 to perfect the business model and vision. GM bought Cruise in March 2016 for $581 million to bolster the software capabilities of the automotive giant and accelerate GM’s development of autonomous vehicle technology. Since that point the team has seemingly been making steady progress after largely been left to its own devices by GM, focusing on Level 4 and 5 vehicles in California, Arizona, and Michigan. Back in January, GM filed a Safety Petition with the Department of Transportation for its fourth-generation self-driving Cruise AV, which it claims is first production-ready vehicle able to operate without a driver, steering wheel, pedals or manual controls. The petition stated GM wanted to deploy vehicles in 2019.

While there have unsurprisingly been no updates from the Department of Transport, GM and Cruise are confident the vehicles will meet the standards set. So confident are the team that Cruise CEO Kyle Vogt wrote an article on Medium in September stating the third-generation vehicles would meet the requirements to operate autonomously.

“The car we’re unveiling today is actually our 3rd generation self-driving car, but it’s the first that meets the redundancy and safety requirements we believe are necessary to operate without a driver,” Vogt wrote. “There’s no other car like this in existence. In a few weeks, these cars will be a part of the fleet that carries Cruise employees anywhere in San Francisco using our app. For now, there will still be a human behind the wheel.”

Cruise Car

Vogt is confident in the progress of the business, and it actually pointing to the hardware, not the software, as one of the biggest complications. Of course developing an intelligent system which can interact with and react in real-time to the environment is certainly a complicated task, though the hardware has to be completely redesigned to be suitable for autonomous driving. According to Vogt, retrofitting existing vehicles is not a feasible solution, though some sceptics might point out this is a very convenient claim for the automotive manufacturers.

The GM acquisition has certainly added capital into the Cruise business, joint investments have allowed the workforce to expand by 1,100 over this period, however the seemingly bottomless bank account of competitors is stealing column inches. Google’s Waymo is one project which benefits from such a luxurious financial position, hitting the headlines for the right reasons, and occasionally the wrong ones. Last October, Waymo gained attention for making progress, but admitting its vehicles were unable to turn left.

Combining the steady GM progress, Vogt’s leadership (he did build his first ‘self-driving’ vehicle at 14 using a webcam, computer vision, and a power window motor), friendly faces in the rest of the Vision Fund portfolio and an extra $3.35 billion of capital certainly puts Cruise in a promising position in the autonomous race.

Uber says driving in Arizona is too dangerous but flying in France is fine

On one side of the Atlantic Uber is pumping R&D funds into making flying taxis a reality, but on the other an internal memo states it is shutting down testing of self-driving cars following the death of a pedestrian in March.

Starting in France, the team has announced plans to open a new Advanced Technologies Center in Paris, which will focus on bringing flying taxis into the world. UberAir is the business unit working to build a network of Vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) aircraft, and while it might sound incredibly exciting for adrenaline commuters, it might be a few years until we are soaring. First and foremost, the process begins with building artificial intelligence and airspace management systems to support uberAIR at scale.

Paris will be the centre of development for the moment, capturing a $20 million investment to make the dream a reality, but Uber has said it would like to demonstrate the technology in Dallas, Los Angeles, and a third, international city by 2020. The Advanced Technologies Center Paris (ATCP) will open will opened in the Autumn, with the recruitment drive for engineering, machine learning, and computer vision talent currently underway. Research will focus on capabilities across airspace management, autonomy, real-time communication networks, energy storage, and charging systems.

Aside from being a demonstration of how rapidly the technology industry is evolving, it also supports the idea of France surging up the technology global rankings. The research centre will certainly be something for President Macron to boast about, as will yesterday’s announcement which saw IBM pumping cash into the French technology scene. Macron has made it a priority to drive France forward as a centre of technology excellence, ultimately aiming to stimulate the start-up community across the country, and the presence of two technology heavyweights certainly adds credibility to the mission.

Elsewhere in the Uber world, the story is not as promising. Following the death of a pedestrian in an incident involving one of Uber’s self-driving vehicles, the team suspended operations, however an internal memo seen by ARS Technica this week confirms Arizona operations will be permanently shut down.

“We’ve made the tough call to wind down operations in Phoenix,” Eric Meyhofer, Head of Uber’s Advanced Technologies Group, wrote in the memo. “As you know, there’s been a public call for the suspension of our self-driving program on Arizona’s public roads and we have decided to refocus the bulk of our efforts in our engineering hubs in San Francisco and Pittsburgh. This is the best path forward as we work to get back on the road as soon as possible.”

As Meyhofer states, this is not the end of the self-driving programme, the team are focusing on talks with officials in Pittsburgh about resuming operations, as well as with California Governor Jerry Brown, the California DMV and the cities of San Francisco and Sacramento. Future tests will be scaled back, taking a more considered approach to development, the memo also notes.

Looking at the financial side of the business, Uber has been briefing investors on its Q1 performance which brought in $2.6 billion, according to Reuters, an 8% sequential increase and a 73% boost from the same period in 2017. When sales of its Southeast Asia business to Grab and its Russia business to Yandex, the company lost $312 million, down from $775 million in the previous quarter and $598 million 12 months ago. How attractive spreadsheets will look in a couple of months’ time remain to be seen, the team are battling various governments around the world over working conditions and employee holiday pay for example, but Uber is starting to look like a company which could actually make money.