Will Britain be first to deploy fleets of autonomous cars?

In another sign that the race for leadership in autonomous car technology is heating up British newspapers (1,2,3) report that UK’s Automotive Council is investing 77 million Euros to deploy a fleet of 100 driverless vehicles in Milton Keynes by 2017. The vehicles will provide taxi services between downtown and the railway station. The vehicles will be fully electric, can carry up to two persons plus baggage and have a maximum speed of 19 km/h. They will be equipped with sensors and software for autonomous navigation. Details have not been finalized but it appears that the project plans to gradually increase the vehicle’s range and autonomy over time. When the first cars will be placed in service in 2015, they will operate on the sidewalk on dedicated lanes. As the project progresses, the vehicles’ range may be extended to include other areas; however, the vehicles will be limited to sidewalks where they will mix with pedestrian traffic or have their own lanes.

The Automotive Council is funded by the British Government and both the Secretary of Business and the Minister of State for Universities strongly support the project. Partners involved in the project are Cambridge University and ARUP, an engineering firm that also oversaw the development of the Heathrow Autonomous PRT Airport Shuttle. British firms already have begun exporting the autonomous PRT technology to other countries and the government hopes that this technology initiative may result in a leading position for the United Kingdom in the upcoming wave of autonomous mobility.

The Milton Keynes project has many advantages: The low speed and limited range allows gaining experience with fleets of mobile taxis while minimizing risks. Running on sidewalks rather than on city streets also reduces potential legal issues. By the time the project reaches its full scale in 2017, it should not be hard to apply many of their learnings to faster moving electric vehicles that can operate on regular urban streets at speeds of up to 50 km/h. The slow speed will also help to secure confidence and trust by the customers. The project will likely have positive effects on pollution by reducing the number trips driven with conventional cars, reduce accidents, increase the adoption of electric vehicles and reduce the costs for local transportation. Thus this project may pave the way for subsequent deployment of autonomous mobility services across the UK and the world.

Whether the Milton Keynes autonomous vehicle fleet will be the first autonomous vehicle fleet world wide which is not limited to separate tracks remains to be seen. There are strong contenders in the United States where Google is likely to introduce similar services (though on city streets) in some locations by 2017, in Singapore where Induct is experimenting with last mile driverless shuttles and probably also Zoox, a new service that will be unwrapped at the upcoming LA Auto Show.

We also expect key automotive manufacturers to announce such initiatives in the next two years. Daimler is particularly well placed for launching autonomous mobility services. In addition, we expect China to make an autonomous mobility services strategy a top priority within the next two years.

The race for the top position in the coming wave of driverless mobility services is still open. But one conclusion should be obvious: The fast path towards fully autonomous vehicles is not based on perfecting driver assistance systems for consumer cars but rather by deploying regionally focused fleets of special-purpose autonomous (and mostly electric) vehicles for urban mobility.

Addition (2013-11-10): A related Automotive Council presentation


Google trademarks logo for a car-sharing service

Google is moving ahead with its efforts to introduce driverless cars. On June 13 it submitted a smiling car icon for trademark protection at the US Patent and Trademark Office (application 85650611). The application does not provide explicit information about the intended use beyond a reference to autonomous driving, but it is obvious that the icon was primarily designed to show available cars in an online map. We have tried to anticipate what this could look like (see graphic below). Whereas Google’s car sharing service will be a natural fit with Google maps, we had to use OpenStreetMap for the graphic because of copyright issues.

The graphic shows Google cars available in Las Vegas; we don’t know yet where Google might ultimately launch a car-sharing service but Nevada has become the first state where key legal hurdles for the operation of autonomous cars have been removed.

Why is Google protecting the logo now? Unless Google has made much greater advances with its technology than is currently known, it is unlikely that an autonomous car sharing service operated by Google could be introduced before 2015. But Google could either be working on developing the software infrastructure for their future mobility services which would quickly lead to icon and logo issues. Or they could be contemplating starting (or buying) a conventional car-sharing service first. They would get first-hand experience and could gradually expand it into a driverless mobility service.

The logo is clear evidence that Google considers car-sharing as the primary business model for its driverless technology. It will not compete with established car makers heads on; instead it will change the fundamentals of personal mobility. Greatly reduced costs through car-sharing and increased flexibility will drive millions of customers away from private car ownership and into the service offerings of Google. Car-makers beware!

Volkswagen launches car-sharing service ‘Quicar’

Like Daimler and BMW, now Volkswagen positions itself in the car-sharing space. It will launch its ‘Quicar‘ car-sharing service in Hannover, Germany on November 16th with about 200 Volkswagen cars and initially about 50 stations where users can pick up the cars.

Costs run at about 0.20 euros per minute with a minimum of 6 euros. Volkswagen has developed their own telematics software and provides mobile phone apps for booking the cars.

This is an important move for the company and an acknowledgement of the looming threats to the established ownership-oriented business model which currently dominates the automotive industry. Car-sharing  is viewed more and more positively among the younger generation, but the more important reason (though not yet explicitly stated) may be that autonomous cars are on the horizon. Once they are introduced, they will greatly increase the appeal of car-sharing and significantly lower total mobility costs for car-sharing  customers. Car-sharing with autonomous cars is the business model of the future for the automotive industry: Volkswagen is making the first steps to prepare for this tectonic shift.

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