Can the UK lead the way in driverless tech?

UK companies are plowing money, resources and research into driverless cars in the hope they can be the first to get automated vehicles on the road.

The technology is still relatively nascent, so it’s not surprising that there have been bumps along the way to safely adopting it. Just last week, a self-driving Uber vehicle struck and sadly killed a woman in Arizona, USA. While no one can yet say for definite who was to blame for the crash, the unfortunate event signalled the first fatal crash involving an automated vehicle and has subsequently stirred up a lot of questions surrounding the technology and whether we are – or even if we should be – ready to adopt it.

The tragic crash has not put a halt on driverless car tech development and investment, though. In fact, Waymo’s (formerly Google self-driving car project) CEO John Krafcik  told a National Automobile Dealers Association conference that he was “very confident that our car could have handled that situation”.

Jaguar ‘leading the way’ in the UK

Fast forward to yesterday and Jaguar Land Rover – arguably one of the UK’s biggest car manufacturers – and Waymo have announced a partnership, which will see both parties work together to design and engineer self-driving Jaguar I-PACE vehicles.

The Jaguar I-PACE will be the first premium self-driving electric vehicle in Waymo’s fleet. Testing will begin this year, with the hope that up to 20,000 vehicles will be part of the driverless fleet from 2020.

Professor Dr. Ralf Speth, Jaguar Land Rover’s chief executive officer said in a statement: “With the Jaguar I-PACE we have a world-beating car that’s captured the imagination of customers around the world. In joining forces with Waymo we are pioneering to push the boundaries of technology.”

As with most technologies, the race is on for car manufacturers and other key stakeholders to be ahead of the curve. Jaguar itself is set to spend more than £4bn on new product creation and capital expenditure in the coming year, but this sense of urgency can potentially have devastating mistakes.

If the UK is to fully adopt driverless technology, those involved in the industry need to build consumer trust. The public needs to feel certain they will be safe. John Krafcik, Waymo’s chief executive officer, addressed this in a statement following the partnership announcement:

“While we’ve been focused at Waymo on building the world’s most experienced driver, the team at Jaguar Land Rover has developed an all-new battery-electric platform that looks to set a new standard in safety, design and capability,” he said.

“We’re sure Waymo riders will enjoy the safe, premium and delightful experience that the self-driving I-PACE will provide.”

Chinese unicorns still dominate

But, what’s going on elsewhere? Over in China – the biggest vehicle manufacturer in the world – Beijing has given the go-ahead for Baidu to test driverless cars on 33 roads.

China has been touted as the potential winner of the AI race, and is seemingly a natural fit for self-driving technology. Ultimately, the plan is to deploy self-driving cars within three to five years on highways and for urban driving by 2025.

With these plans comes heavy funding, too. In 2017, Chinese search engine and AI company Baidu announced that it was pledging $1.5bn to back autonomous driving tech companies. This is no shock: Baidu is currently trialling autonomous vehicles in the US and China, and picked up 70 big name car manufacturer partners after it made its Apollo self-driving car platform freely available to the auto industry last year.

Besides Baidu, Shanghai-based NIO has produced the world’s fastest self-driving EV and is the most well-funded autonomous vehicle startup in China. Its total funding tops $2.1bn, and the company says its self-driving cars will be on sale in the United States by 2020.

Other big investments included: BAIC BJEV with a $1.6bn Series B; Shanghai-based WM Motor, which picked up at least $1.15bn in disclosed funding from usual suspects like Baidu and Tencent; and LeSee, an autonomous EV concept project backed by approximately $1bn. Then there’s Pony.AI. The California-based self-driving car startup secured $112m Series A in funding at an undisclosed valuation in January 2018.

Safety first

The ethics around AI are still largely unexplored. And, even with such guidelines there is, naturally, going to be some social resistance – especially in the wake of the Uber fiasco.

Perhaps the UK will follow Germany’s lead, which published world-first ethical rules regarding how autonomous vehicles are to be programmed, in 2017.

The report states that, even with automation, accidents cannot be avoided completely – an interesting point as driverless car supporters typically argue the technology will serve to reduce accidents in comparison to those blamed on human error.

Companies such as Jaguar are predicting as little as two years before a driverless car fleet will be fully unveiled on the roads. But, people aren’t quite warming up to the idea of a machine taking control of the wheel just yet.

A survey by Pew Research Center report found that roughly two-thirds of Americans think robocars will dominate roads within the next half-century, yet fewer than half say they would choose to ride in one themselves.

However, Recent research from Deloitte found that consumer trust in the safety of self-driving cars is actually going up in 15 countries across the world.

Government is hopeful

Despite all of this, the UK government is keen for the country to be a hub for self-driving cars.

Chris Grayling, transport secretary for the government, said in a recent interview that: “We tend to miss the fact that at technology we’re very good in this country.”

And just last month, the UK government announced that they are planning to spend £22.4m in a bid to support research into self-driving vehicle projects across the country.

The government estimates driverless technology will be worth £50bn to the British economy by 2035, so this investment is minuscule in comparison to the possibilities.

Overall, Waymo’s and Jaguar’s partnership signals good news for the UK, which tends to lag behind its counterparts, some of which boast bigger car manufacturers and enjoy larger trenches of government funding, but we still have a long road ahead until driverless cars are perceived as the new normal.

We need far more testing, research and debate around the ethical questions raised by the technology.