British minicab, car hire, and courier firm Addison Lee has partnered with driverless car group Oxbotica with the aim of offering an autonomous taxi service in London by 2021.
The two companies said on Monday that Oxbotica – formed in 2014 as an Innovate UK-backed spinout from Oxford University – would begin 3D mapping more than 250,000 miles of roads in and around the capital next month.
Oxbotica was the first company to test a self-driving car on British roads in 2016, which was one of the reasons why Addison Lee decided to partner with the firm, according to the taxi firm’s CEO, Andy Boland.
“The way they have built their technology and how they are already provisioning it has been impressive,” he said.
“They have the most tangible capability that we could go with, and we felt that the way they were thinking about it, the business model isn’t just for ride share or car share, it’s across a range of other industry applications, and we like that, too. It’s now getting serious, and real-life-scale operators like Addison Lee are looking to bring this to market.”
Mapping out strategy
The long-term aim is to integrate Oxbotica’s technology across Addison Lee’s diverse fleet, which would give the cab firm an advantage over other on-demand providers that are either tied to a single type of vehicle, or are developing their own cars.
In January, Addison Lee announced a “digital global service” that would allow passengers to book taxis in 100 cities worldwide via its app or the Web. It also announced renewed investment in London, with an additional 1,300 Ford Galaxy people carriers, over 500 Mercedes vehicles, 30 Vauxhall Vivaro vans, and 15 500cc Honda motorcycles.
However, Addison Lee admitted on Monday that it may initially offer shared driverless minibus shuttles for passengers to get to work, school, or the airport rather than a full autonomous taxi service.
So what of the technology itself?
Oxbotica’s autonomous control system, Selenium, enables vehicles to understand their environment, while Caesium is its cloud-based autonomous-fleet management system.
Oxbotica’s says its mission is to enable its customers to customise and integrate what it calls “the world’s leading mobile autonomy IP” into their own products.
Speaking about the new Addison Lee relationship, CEO of Oxbotica, Graeme Smith, said, “This represents a huge leap towards bringing autonomous vehicles into mainstream use on the streets of London, and eventually in cities across the United Kingdom and beyond.
“Our partnership represents another milestone for the commercial deployment of our integrated autonomous vehicle and fleet management software systems in complex urban transport conditions. Together, we are taking a major step in delivering the future of mobility.”
Although no vehicle partner has been named in the plan to date, the announcement comes in the wake of a year-long investigation with Ford and others on how to integrate driverless cars with London’s existing transport infrastructure.
The Uber question
In the capital, Addison Lee competes with black cabs and other on-demand providers. As a result, the tie-up with Oxbotica positions it against Uber, which is developing its own autonomous vehicle systems.
In August, Japanese car giant Toyota invested $500 million in Uber, in a technology partnership that aims to bring autonomous mobility as a service (AutonoMaaS) to market at scale.
However, Uber may be considering spinning out its self-driving car unit, the Advanced Technologies Group (ATG), as it gears up for IPO in the Spring – a timescale that pitches it against US rival, Lyft, which is also planning to go public early in 2019.
In the US, Uber is locked in a head-to-head race against Waymo, General Motors, Apple, Tesla, and others, to develop driverless cars, and with Waymo and GM’s Cruise division to be the first company to bring an autonomous taxi service to US roads. However, its plans were dealt a blow in March when an Uber test vehicle struck and killed a pedestrian in Tempe, Arizona.
Plus: Uber subsidising electric vehicles
In related connected transport news this week, Uber has announced that it plans to raise prices by 15p (19c) a mile in London next year, so that it can subsidise electric vehicle (EV) purchases by its drivers.
The levy, which will add 45p (58c) to the average journey, will be held in an account for each driver, gradually building up a fund to aid the cost of purchasing an EV in the future.
Uber hopes that half of its drivers will switch to EVs by 2021.
Internet of Business says
The self-driving car market is expected to be worth some £28 billion in the UK alone by 2035. But not everyone is convinced by such headlines.
Dr Sally Epstein, machine learning expert at Cambridge Consultants – as the name suggests, a company whose roots are in Oxford’s great university rival – cautions that full commercial autonomy remains a long way off:
“The goal of autonomous vehicles in the UK by 2021 is hugely ambitious, but consumers should know that we’re nowhere near to having genuinely driverless cars on public roads,” she said.
According to Epstein, the key obstacles still to overcome are:
• Mapping data will be out of date as soon as it is collected. Street furniture is constantly changing, with roadworks, accidents and more, while human movement in the same environment will remain “stubbornly difficult to predict”.
• Mapping data alone is not sufficient for the challenge. Maps must be intelligently integrated with other sensor data, in order to keep drivers and other road users safe.
• How will vehicle decision-making be understood after an incident? There must be adequate transparency in the system for consumers to trust a vehicle’s decision-making, said Epstein.
“When fully autonomous vehicles do finally arrive, explaining how their decisions are made, particularly following accidents, will be much more important than any statistical proof that they experience fewer accidents than with humans at the wheel,” she added.