The moment when self-driving cars transition from an interesting read to a reality on the streets around us is inching closer. The first pilot service involving fully-autonomous vehicles launched in Frisco, Texas earlier this year offering the public free rides between fixed pick-up and destination points within an office, entertainment and retail space.
It’s being run by California start-up Drive.ai rather than one of the bigger names in the fledgling industry, such as Tesla, Uber or Alphabet’s Waymo. And now it looks like here in the UK we’ve moved to within 3 years of the first self-driving car service launching after Oxford tech spin-off Oxbotica and Addison Lee, the private hire taxi firm, announced a partnership that aims to launch in London by 2021.
Like U.S.-peer Drive.ai, Oxbotica is not one of the big names in the autonomous vehicles technology space. However, the company, which was spun out of an Oxford University project, believes its self-driving technology has the edge on that of many of its more illustrious rivals. The basis of the tech that will safely guide driverless Addison Lee taxis around 250,000 miles of London’s public roads is already being used commercially in ports, warehouses and on Mars – it’s part of the Nasa Mars Rover’s operating system.
Graeme Smith, the Oxbotica chief executive, believes the company’s specialisation in “tight environments” means its technology makes it better suited to the “much more complex” London environment than others developed for “the open California highways”. The new driverless service will initially cover a more limited section of the 250,000 miles being carefully mapped by Oxbotica’s technology. That process is currently underway through sensors and cameras mounted on part of Addison Lee’s existing fleet. The start-up recently secured an additional £14 million investment to further develop its technology and business model as well as expand internationally.
Over the next couple of years, numerous pilot services for driverless are planned across the USA, Asia and Europe as the space’s competitors seek to gain practical experience and reassure the public and regulators of safety. While driverless cars are fully expected to drastically improve road safety over time, and even be safer than human drivers in the shorter term, even isolated accidents would be negative PR and weigh on the public’s minds, potentially slowing down adoption rates. The result is a ‘slowly slowly’ approach to rolling out services to ensure risks are absolutely minimised to build the necessary trust that the latest technology in the world is actually safer than the rate of human driver error today. A good parallel is the fear many individuals have of flying despite all of the statistical evidence supporting the fact that it is the safest mode of transport in the world.
While the Oxbotica and Addison Lee driverless vehicles service partnership is the first concrete project for London and the wider UK to be announced, there is still a chance its 2021 launch date could be beaten by rivals. There is fierce competition in the nascent driverless car services industry as a result of the huge value the industry is forecast to be worth in coming years.