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