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.

Uber decision shows London is behind the times

In light of Transport for London deciding not to renew Uber’s license to operate in the capital, there has been a wave of support for the ride-hailing service.

Future Cities Catapult is one of those organizations which is supporting Uber, not because it’s employees want cheap rides home, but because the use of technology to disrupt the status quo is what all digital entrepreneurs should be aiming for.

“Uber’s story has been so often told and it’s easy to get caught up in the intrigues of Uber’s office politics and the drama of Uber’s street politics with the cabbies,” said Rushi Rama, Strategy, Markets and Standards Team Lead at Future Cities Catapult. “But there is a bigger picture to consider.

“Uber’s aggressive expansion is what forced the rest of the sector to embrace the digital age for their customers. Uber represents the disruptive force of digital technology overturning entrenched business models. In the process, companies like Uber and Airbnb change their industries and life for millions.”

Rama has a point. Uber only begun because it spotted an opportunity to use technology in way which would make money and offer a useful service to customers. For everything wrong which Uber is accused of, there is one reason why its service (or one very similar) will continue; it offered customers something they wanted, at a price they could afford.

For those who lived in London prior to the Uber takeover, the scramble home was a nightmare after the pubs kicked out. More often than not, it was either a sprint to the nearest tube or enduring the ‘pleasures’ of the night bus. Cabs were either for those with expense accounts, in groups or had more money than sense. The taxi trade in the city centre made their own problems, either charging too much to get back out to Zone Three, or flat out refusing to go that far out of their way. Customer centric wasn’t a phrase which existed here.

Uber changed the game. It was cost effective, you could hail a cab when you waited in the pub and the number of taxis ensured the supply/demand didn’t exploit the customer. Uber embraced technological advances and created a service which was loved by the customer. Just ask the 787,810 people who have signed a petition to save the service (at the time of writing). It was a service created for the customer, not the cabbies. Yes, Uber made a load of cash, but they kept customers happy.

“The quickest and easiest response to this challenge is to slow the pace of change, or stop it outright,” said Rama. “And this looks to have been the case in cities and countries around the world. In most cases, as in London, the issue is safety, and there it is hard to argue that citizens should not be protected. But this could easily slip into protection of vested and monopolistic interests.”

Uber might have some questionable ethics and business processes, but those are the issues which need to be addressed. Banning the service, or at least attempting to, is not the right way to go about it. It is after all a service which benefits the customer; shouldn’t local governments and authorities be encouraging these ideas? Why not address the individual problems? If someone has a rash on their wrist, you treat it with ointment; you don’t amputate the entire arm.

Governments have always struggled to keep up with the pace of change. Perhaps the easiest way to address the challenge is to slow its progress? It is the simple solution which does not benefit the customer. And it certainly doesn’t shine the forward thinking light onto London; no wonder Silicon Roundabout is still a roundabout of mediocrity.

Why not undue the rest of the digital economy? Ban AirBnB because it is providing competition to mainstream hotels? Should we eradicate eBay and Amazon so the book stores can have a better chance? Or how about destroying the internet so traditional media channels can flourish again? Should other disruptors in the digital economy be afraid of progressing too quickly? Should Silicon Valley just down tools for the moment and wait for the boresome bureaucrats around the world to catch up?

“Perhaps a better approach to the challenge is to do the work ahead of time – if we can anticipate the issues that digital disruption will bring, then we can put in place strategies and regulatory frameworks appropriate for them,” said Rama.

TfL should investigate Uber, and the organization should be held accountable to standards which are deemed appropriate for the city. But banning disruptive technologies which offer a clear benefit to the general public is not the right answer. Transport for London should be slightly embarrassed by such actions, because it is essentially an omission of fault. It wasn’t ready to regulate new ideas like Uber, failed to catch up in the following years and the situation got away from its grasp.

A ban will give it a chance to get back into the game, but if this approach was taken with every technological breakthrough, would there be any such thing as progress?

Uber CEO promises to be good from now on

In a public letter to the whole of London Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi struck a conciliatory tone while vowing to appeal the recent decision not to renew its license.

Transport for London’s decision late last week sparked widespread response from petitions against the decision to applause for cutting the upstart internet company down to size. Uber’s initial response was defiant but Khosrowshahi, who let’s not forget recently replaced the founder of the company precisely because of the bad press he was generating, has tried to inject a dash of humility into his company’s public position.

You can read Khosrowshahi’s tweet and public letter below. While not explicitly detailing any measures he seems to be holding out the olive branch to TfL and asking what he can do to fix this. It’s hard to believe he hadn’t been made aware of TfL’s issues with Uber long before the decision was announced and last week’s announcement seems to have achieved what we presume was one of its desired outcomes – to get his attention.

Khosrowshahi has previously written a widely-leaked internal memo that you can also read below, in which he stressed that Uber needs to show greater humility and learn from past mistakes if it wants to move onwards and upwards.  

London Mayor Sadiq Khan recently did a radio interview in which he somewhat passive-aggressively accused Uber of being aggressive by threatening to take legal action. The interviewer quite rightly asked what’s aggressive about that but received no answer.

As we discussed in our recent podcast, the TfL move seemed to be a hard negotiating position and now Uber is quite rightly trying to take the heat out of the situation while simultaneously canvassing public support and banging on about how much it cares about London Uber drivers and passengers. Now that the posturing is out of the way hopefully that can all get together and do a deal to get Uber back in business on terms agreeable to London.