Uber is much more than a taxi firm

To most people, Uber is just a cheap and convenient way to get home after a few drinks, but the scope of the business is extraordinary.

While the inclusion of Uber at a broadband conference might have raised a few eyebrows, the overview given by Global Head of Connectivity Rahul Vijay demonstrated the creativity, innovation and stubborn drive which has ensured Silicon Valley and its residents are some of the most influential in the world.

First and foremost, no-one should consider Uber as a taxi company anymore, at least not in the traditional sense. The taxi’s might still account for the majority of annual revenues, but the team is expanding into so many different areas it is difficult to sum up the business in a single sentence.

Aside from the taxi business we all know and love, Uber has a commercial business working with the travel teams at large corporations, the food delivery business unit is solidly position in a fast-growing segment, the team also work with insurance companies to make sure patients make it to their hospital appointments and it is also making promising moves into the freight world. In markets in south east Asia, the team has launched a 2G-compatible app and is also applying the same business model to mopeds and scooters. In Croatia, Uber has launched a boat taxi service.

These are the ideas which are up-and-running or currently being live trialled, though the R&D unit is also playing around with some interesting ideas. Autonomous vehicles, flying taxis and drone delivery initiatives are just some of the blue-thinking projects. This is a company where a lot is going on.

The interesting aspect of the autonomous vehicles is not just the technology but the supporting connectivity landscape.

“Without mobility there is no Uber,” Vijay said at Broadband World Forum in Amsterdam.

Some have suggested that Uber will never be profitable until autonomous vehicles are commonplace through the fleet, though it doesn’t seem to be the technology which is worrying Vijay; connectivity is too expensive today.

The test vehicles which are currently purring around the highways of North America transmit as much as 2 TB of data a day. This is not only a monstrous amount of information to store and analyse, but the economics of taking this data from the car to the data centres is not there. Vijay said it is still by far and away cheaper to transmit this data through optical cables than over the air, which is not practical. Until 5G arrives, and is scaled throughout the transportation infrastructure, autonomous vehicles are not a commercially viable concept for Uber.

This also opens the door up to another very useful revenue stream for Uber. With more than 110 million users around the world, 200 new trips are started every second. These vehicles are travelling through cities, countryside’s and down highways. The amount of information on mobile signal strength or the performance of mobile handoff between cell sites is boggling. These are only two areas, but Vijay suggested there could be hordes of valuable information which could be collected by the vehicles as they fulfil the core primary business objective.

For telcos, regulators, governments or cloud companies, this insight could be incredibly valuable. It could inform investment strategies or encourage policy changes. If data is the new oil, Uber is sitting on a very significant reserve.

As it stands, the company brings in a lot of money, but the prospect of profits are questionable. In the three months ending June 30, Uber revenues attributable to bookings stood at $15.756 billion. The loss from these operations was $5.485 billion. The transportation game operates on very fine margins. Share price has declined by 28% since this earnings call, though there is hope on the horizon.

If Uber can gain traction in the new markets it is pushing aggressively into there will be increased revenues, though in monetizing assets which it creates organically, the data collected from taxi trips, there could be some interesting developments.

Arm unveils the new Autonomous Vehicle Computing Consortium

Embedded chip giant Arm has announced a new industry consortium designed to coordinate industry collaboration over autonomous vehicles.

As well as Arm the AVCC also counts Bosch, Continental, Denso, General Motors, Nvidia, NXP and Toyota among its founding members. Its initial work will involve developing a set of recommendations of a system architecture and a computing platform to promote scalable deployment of automated and autonomous vehicles.

“The future of mobility and the safe, scalable deployment of advanced driver assistance systems to fully autonomous vehicles for mass production requires unprecedented industry collaboration,” said Dipti Vachani, GM of Automotive and IoT Business at Arm.  “The AVCC brings together leaders from across the automotive industry landscape to tackle complex foundational technological and computing challenges to accelerate our path to a truly autonomous future.”

“The massive amount of technological innovation required to power fully self-driving vehicles at scale requires collaboration at an industry level,” said Massimo Osella, AVCC Chairman and lab group manager at General Motors. “We are delighted to join this group of key leaders in the automotive industry. As the AVCC, we are working together to create the ’go to‘ organization for autonomous computing expertise to help bring this technology to market.”

“The AVCC understands the technological complexities and obstacles that need to be overcome for the deployment of autonomous vehicles,” said Satoru Taniguchi, AVCC board member, and Project General Manager at Toyota.  “Toyota aims to work with the other AVCC members to deliver a conceptual computing platform that addresses these challenges.”

Before regulators and general society are prepared to let driverless vehicles share the road with actual people. There clearly needs to be a lot of coordination to ensure things like software interoperability, standardised vehicle-to-vehicle communication and that sort of thing. This consortium seems to have a lot of the right companies involved, but will need to attract many more before it can be considered the default authority on this sort of thing.

What did we learn from the Tory Party Conference?

In a couple of words; not a lot.

Considering there was the big claim of £5 billion investment into rural broadband, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has promised a rapid acceleration of fibre investment and 5G is on everyone’s lips, not a huge amount of homage was paid to the telecoms and technology industry.

Perhaps we should not be surprised. Brexit is dominating the headlines and politicians seem more interesting in insulting those on the other side of the Commons than addressing actual policies. There were of course passing references to things that matter, but this is the spearhead of the political circus.

Andrea Leadsom, Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy

Leadsom might not hit the headlines for telecoms and technology news that often, but her department is one which we should pay considerable attention to. In a brief address, the message was simple; success in-hand with the Government not in-spite of it. How this works out remains to be seen, there are plenty of sceptics out there.

“We’re standing on the cusp of a new industrial revolution, and for the first time since the first industrial revolution, the UK is positioned to lead in extraordinary new ways,” said Leadsom.

“Those memories shaped my politics, but it was Margaret Thatcher’s vision of a shareholding democracy and her introduction of the right to buy that shaped my personal ambition -and that is to help everybody to build a secure life for themselves and their families.

“So, I want to see a better environment for business, less red tape and lower taxes to incentivise them.”

This is a claim many business leaders will want to see. Lower taxes and less regulation to worry about. What is worth noting, this is a very generalist claim. The telecoms and technology segments are overdue a regulatory overhaul and this will not change because a politician is chasing headlines with a soundbite.

One area which is worth paying attention to is the idea of automation. This segment of the speech was directed more towards autonomous vehicles and drones as opposed to a workforce overhaul, though it could indicate there are some new policies in the pipeline. This Government has been very keen on gaining a leadership position in the growing world of autonomous driving and drone management already, and it would not surprise us to see another incremental step forward soon enough.

Sajid Javid, Chancellor of the Exchequer

This is the speech many in the telecommunications and technology world would have been paying attention to, and it might well have fallen short of expectations.

Over the weekend, it was reported Javid was going to announce new investment to encourage investment in the UK’s hardest to reach areas. $5 billion to ensure the UK does not create another digital divide which the Government has been working to correct ever since. The investment was confirmed, though little else was offered to add colour to the new policy.

The investment will be used to ensure fibre deployments reach the most difficult 20% of households and businesses throughout the UK. But like his colleagues, Javid elected to concentrate the majority of his speech on a bit of Corbyn-bashing.

One area which could be worth keeping an eye on is the promise to continue the devolution of power throughout England. Although this will please some in the regions, those who seek regulatory consistency will perhaps exhale deeply.

There will of course be regional variances in how regulations are designed and implementing, Cowbridge is very different to London after all, however the risk of devolution is a mix-match of red-tape. Negotiations with hundreds of councils throughout the UK, all of which have their own demands and requirements. It is the stuff of nightmares for a cash-intensive industry.

Nicky Morgan, Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport

Amazingly, the person with the most relevance had the least to say.

In short, Morgan congratulated the Conservative party for what it had achieved thus-far, quoted figures, promised the UK is the best place in Europe for tech and talked-dirty about the Labour Party leadership.

Perhaps the most meaningless speech of the day.

Key take-aways from today at the Conference

It is difficult to cut through the noise, but we will do our best. A lot of today was hyping the Conservative Party, undermining the Labour Party and chasing headlines.

However, the idea of re-nationalism was consistently attacked. Lesser regulations have been championed. While technology and telecoms will form the central pillars of the UK economy moving forward.

There are a couple of interesting soundbites to take-away from today, and perhaps more than was offered during the Labour Party Conference, but we were hoping for more than posturing. Perhaps that was our short-coming.

O2 looks to the stars to fuel CAV connectivity

O2 has launched a new project with the European Space Agency to address the notable strain which will be placed on networks with the introduction of connected and autonomous vehicles (CAVs).

While there has been a nod to the potential pitfalls of providing connectivity for CAVs, it hasn’t received a significant amount of attention to date. O2 claims it has done research on the segment, and wide-scale adoption of CAVs could generate up to 4 TB of data an hour. This would certainly place a strain on urban networks, but the usecases don’t end at the city limits; the strain placed on rural networks might be too much of a burden.

Code-named ‘Project Darwin’, O2 and the European Space Agency will work with Spanish satellite operator Hispasat, as well as various universities and vertical start-ups, to create connectivity solutions combining 5G and satellite communications.

“Project Darwin is an important piece of the connected and autonomous vehicle puzzle,” said Derek McManus of O2. “The research taking place at Harwell during the next four years will be vital in the creation of new transport ecosystems for the UK public and the companies that will offer these services.”

“Autonomous vehicles need robust, high-speed mobile data connections to operate effectively,” said Catherine Mealing-Jones, Director of Growth at the UK Space Agency. “Building the technology to link them to telecoms satellites will allow you to take your car wherever you want to go, and not just to areas with a strong mobile signal.”

This is one of the questions which the telco seems very keen to avoid at the moment; what is being done to ensure 5G is not an ecosystem for the privileged? Or at least not for a longer period of time than is necessary.

Having just driven back to London from the South-west, your correspondent can confirm the patchy nature of 4G. Telcos and government will tell you this is an area which is constantly improving, but it isn’t although we were taking countryside backroads. The M4 is one of the most important and busiest arteries of the UK. Maybe we are expecting too much, but the number of times devices dropped off 4G coverage is not encouraging for these future usecases which depend on constant and reliable connectivity.

These are questions which are perhaps being addressed elsewhere but not directly in the UK. How quickly is the network growing? Are network densification strategies advancing as quickly as other nations who are driving towards the 5G promise?

Business Secretary Greg Clark has stated the UK has ambitions to lead in the CAVs segment, but to do this the right connectivity conditions need to be in place. It does not appear the network has been rolled out far or densified enough to meet the demands of this emerging segment, whenever it appears.

Satellite is often seen as the ugly duckling in the connectivity mix. It is often considered as an option for the developing nations, and largely overlooked for those who can afford to build connectivity closer to the ground. However, digital divides exist all around the world, albeit nowhere near as extreme or consequential as regions such as Africa. If there are ‘not spot’s, or even areas of weak/patchy signal, some 5G usecases are undermined. CAVs is one of them.

Attitudes towards satellite connectivity have been shifting over the last 12 months, and it does appear to be increasingly becoming an important ingredient in the connectivity recipe. The UK network is evolving and improving, but it is far from perfect; satellites look an asset which are becoming more of a necessity than back-up.

How long can Uber keep bleeding cash?

It is becoming increasingly popular to invest in money-bleeding technology giants in preparation of an inflection point in profits, but you have to wonder how long Uber will be able to hold on for.

Uber is a massive brand, an innovator and genuine disruptor to the status quo. There are few examples of a concept riding the wave of digital to create such a severe disturbance to the traditional world. And while Uber might be the biggest transportation brand in the digital era, it is haemorrhaging cash quarter-on-quarter. Other segments have demonstrated there will be an inflection point, the moment of glory horrendous losses are turned into monstrous profits, but that scenario might be a long-way off for Uber.

Looking at the quarterly results, revenues grew to $3.09 billion for the period, a 20% increase year-on-year, but net loss from operations was $1.03 billion. This is 116% more than it lost in the same period of 2018.

The losses are certainly starting to mount as well. In the final quarter of 2018, Uber reported a net loss of $865 million. In Q4, the loss was slightly worse at $939 million. In this period of 2018, the firm reported net loss of $478 million from operations.

In the digital economy, investors are seemingly happy to swallow negatives, Uber’s share price following the announcement of the financials is holding steady, though how long can the potential remain potential?

Encouraging these investors are companies like Amazon and Netflix. In both of these cases, the firm build a dominant position in the respective segments, scaled globally, attracted millions of customers and then turned attentions to profits. Uber might be able to do the same thing, it is following the same trends, though there are sceptical voices.

Some might suggest Uber will continue to be a loss-making company until autonomous vehicles emerge. The theory is sound, after all a company’s biggest overhead is staff. Uber will be able to free up billions once the technology is perfected, making it a very profitable company. However, it might be decades before autonomous vehicles are a realistic prospect on the streets.

The technology might not be far away, but there are so many other moving parts which need to be factored in. Firstly, will people trust handing control of vehicles to machines? Are regulations and legislation in place to facilitate the introduction of this technology? How long will it take parallel industries, such as insurance, to ready themselves? Is the infrastructure, both roads and mobile connectivity, ready for autonomous vehicles? Have safety concerns been appropriately addressed?

There are so many factors to consider, the progression of autonomous vehicles is much more than technology. It might be decades before self-driving cars hit the streets; can investors wait that long for the Uber inflection point?

There is also an interesting, and slightly nefarious, philosophical question to consider when it comes to programming the artificial intelligence component of the technology.

Let’s say a car is driving down the street, travelling at 20 mph when a child steps into the road. The child is within the braking distance of the car therefore it is physically impossible to stop the vehicle in time. There are three options for the AI to choose from:

  1. Continue driving forward and potentially kill the child
  2. Turn sharply left and potentially drive into pedestrians
  3. Turn sharply right and potentially drive into on-coming traffic

In each of these scenarios, there is the potential for a fatality. But here is the issue; the AI will have to make a ‘conscious’ choice, the outcome might mean death, and the software engineer will have to write the software deciding how the AI will react.

The reason why this is different to today’s driving condition is because a human reacts without thinking through the possible outcomes. We cannot assess the information fast enough and react with a logical action, but AI can.

This scenario is of course highly unlikely, sensors and cameras on street furniture might be able to warn the vehicle of the on-going hazard, but it is a possibility therefore the AI has to be programmed to decide. There is no right answer here, but the AI is flawed unless a decision on what course of action to take is made.

Some might suggest the option with the smallest percentage chance for a fatality should be taken, but the risk of a fatality is still there. Because the vehicle has made a decision, should someone be held accountable if someone dies as a result of the action? This is a very complicated area.

So, if autonomous vehicles are out of the question for years to come, Uber will have to think of other ways to make money.

Uber Eats is proving to be a profitable venture for the firm, while the management team has promised to cut back on promotions which might carve into profits. But will these side ventures compensate for the way the core business and R&D businesses are churning through cash. What is clear, Uber needs to stop bleeding cash in such a dramatic fashion or credibility with investors might start to run dry.

Uber sheds light on operations ahead of IPO

Uber is not a company which shares huge insights into its business traditionally, but a filing ahead of a planned IPO has unveiled some very interesting details.

In chasing its long-awaiting debut on the New York Stock Exchange, the curtain has been pulled aside and the cogs laid bare. $11.27 billion in revenue across 2018, 42% growth on 2017, net income of $997 million and 91 million active users around the world. This is a company which will attract some interest from the market, though an adjusted EBITDA loss of $1.85 billion might concern some.

“Building this platform has required a willingness to challenge orthodoxies and reinvent – sometimes even disrupt – ourselves,” said CEO Dara Khosrowshahi. “Over the last decade, as the needs and preferences of our customers have changed, we changed too. Now, we’re becoming different once again; a public company.”

With an IPO comes a lot more information on a company as executives attempt to woo potential shareholders. The S1 form filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission has unveiled some very interesting details.

Starting with the customer base. Uber currently has 91 million active users across 700 cities around the world, though this number also include Uber Eats. This is a 33% increase compared to the previous year as the numbers show increasing momentum over the last three years.

With a presence in 63 countries, Uber estimates it serves roughly 2% of the population across this footprint, clocking up 26 billion miles in journeys across the year. This might sound like a monstrous number, though it is in fact less than 1% of the total, with the team pointing to significant headroom for growth. In fact, Uber estimates the total addressable market is a $5.7 trillion opportunity in 175 countries.

On the R&D front, Uber has been very aggressive, investing $1.5 billion across 2018 in autonomous vehicles, flying cars, which is known as Uber Elevate, and other ‘technology programs’. The autonomous and flying cars portion of the pie was $457 million. Future tech will clearly play a significant role in the future of the business, with some suggesting the firm will not make a profit until autonomous vehicles have been integrated into operations.

At the end of the final quarter of 2018, Uber estimates there are roughly 3.9 million drivers on the platform, earning $78.2 billion since 2015. In 2018, Gross Bookings grew to $49.8 billion, up 45% from $34.4 billion in 2017, while revenues grew 42% to $11.3 billion. Clearly the drivers are the biggest expense of the business, though with autonomous vehicles there will major challenges alongside the profit gain.

“Along the way to a potential future autonomous vehicle world, we believe that there will be a long period of hybrid autonomy, in which autonomous vehicles will be deployed gradually against specific use cases while Drivers continue to serve most consumer demand,” Uber stated in the filing. “As we solve specific autonomous use cases, we will deploy autonomous vehicles against them.

“Such situations may include trips along a standard, well-mapped route in a predictable environment in good weather. In other situations, such as those that involve substantial traffic, complex routes, or unusual weather conditions, we will continue to rely on Drivers.”

The future might be autonomous, but that dream is likely to be a very long-time away. For drivers that might be worried about becoming redundant, there are some glimmers of hope. Autonomous vehicles will take a long-time to be accepted across the mass market, some customers will refuse to use them in the first instance, while certain situations will continue to demand human intervention; the technology simply isn’t there yet.

While there are rumours about the total valuation of the company, some are suggesting a $100 billion target while others point closer to $120 billion, Uber executives are remaining quiet.

Brexit threatens UK’s pole position in autonomous vehicle race

The UK might be a world leader in connected and autonomous vehicles, but Brexit could throw out a few roadblocks and speedbumps.

According to a new report produced by Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) and Frost & Sullivan, the UK is one of, if not the, leading nation worldwide in the connected and autonomous vehicles segment. This position has been created through notable private and public investments, four test beds, three highway test sites and more than 80 R&D projects.

The UK also has digital infrastructure which enables the concept of autonomous vehicles, most notably reasonably high average 4G speeds, 77% geographical coverage and the highest percentage of roads which could theoretically be automated by 2030, one in five road miles. These figures are also backed up by friendly policies, most notably the world’s first insurance legislation for autonomous vehicles, which was introduced by Parliament in 2018.

All of these factors combined creates the most attractive market for connected and autonomous vehicle developers, according to the SMMT and Frost & Sullivan, though Brexit could throw all of this into chaos.

“The UK’s potential is clear,” said Mike Hawes, SMMT CEO. “We are ahead of many rival nations but to realise these benefits we must move fast. Brexit has undermined our global reputation for political stability and it continues to devour valuable time and investment. We need the deadlock broken with ‘no deal’ categorically ruled out and a future relationship agreed that reflects the integrated nature of our industry and delivers frictionless trade.”

While many are bored of Brexit now, changing the channel when the news shoots across to the Houses of Parliament, it is at a critical juncture. The decisions which are being made over the next few weeks will not only decide the future success of the UK as an economic power, but also how attractive it is as an investment destination for businesses around the world.

As it stands, a pondering, sluggish and seesawing political system does not encourage any business with policy certainty and consistency. The UK political and economic landscape is the laughing stock of the world and before too long this will hit hard with consequences.

However, the benefits of this industry are clear. The report suggests £62 billion could be added to the UK economy by 2030, if the country can ready itself appropriately. £25 billion could be realised through the value of time where consumers can make more use of the time spent in their vehicles, more efficient journeys lead to greater productivity and labour market flexibility could add £15 billion, while costs in insurance, running costs and parking could save £6 billion. New segments, such as electronics and data services could also contribute £18 billion.

“The UK already has the essential building blocks – forward thinking legislation, advanced technology infrastructure, a highly skilled labour force, and a tech savvy customer base – to spearhead CAV deployment over the next decade,” said Sarwant Singh, Senior Partner and Head of Mobility, Frost & Sullivan.

“However, it will require sustained and coordinated efforts by all key stakeholders, especially the government, to realise the significant annual economic benefits forecast for the UK from CAV deployment by 2030 and drive the vision of safe, convenient and accessible mobility for all.”

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.