CEO Interview – Dr Graeme Smith, Oxbotica

Picture Dr Graeme Smith, CEO Oxbotica
Graeme Parker Oxbotica

LOOK NO HANDS

The government is planning for fully driverless cars on British roads by 2021. One company leading the vehicle software development for those cars is Oxbotica.

You don’t have to look too hard to spot autonomous cars being tested in Oxford city and the surrounding countryside. Blue and white Ford Mondeos badged up with logos and carrying cameras, lasers and radars are being driven around the county testing, testing, testing an autonomous control system called Selenium.

Selenium has been developed by Oxbotica, a spin-out from Oxford University’s internationally-regarded Mobile Robotics Group. It uses data from laser and camera sensors mounted on the vehicle to find out where it is, what’s around it and calculate a safe and efficient route.

Oxbotica is leading the government-backed consortium DRIVEN which, since April 2017, has been deploying its fleet of fully autonomous vehicles in urban areas and on motorways. The programme will culminate in 2020, in an end-to-end journey from London to Oxford.

Ahead of government legislation to allow fully driverless cars on our roads, there are also humans sitting in the driver and passenger seats logging the car’s progress and ensuring the trial is carried out safely.

Dreams become a reality

Dr Graeme Smith has led Oxbotica as its Chief Executive since the company’s foundation in 2014 and it’s hard to think of anyone better qualified to do the job. He was previously a Director of Telematics at Ford, led a telematics implementation project as director for the UK’s Department for Transport and has worked in telematics, transport and cloud computing for years, alongside companies including Renault-Nissan and Peugeot Citroen.

Where did this passion come from? “When I was a kid, I loved sci-fi and dreamed of self-driving cars,” he says.

His childhood dreams are no longer the stuff of science fiction. “We will start to see autonomous vehicles on our roads from 2021 and expect to see numbers growing from 2022 onwards, probably over 10-15 years. The adoption of autonomous vehicles will spread from locations where the environment is relatively simple, such as airports and university campuses.”

Oxbotica undertook its first trial of a self-driving vehicle at Heathrow Airport, partnering with IAG Cargo. The “CargoPod” spent almost a month running autonomously along a cargo route around the airside perimeter. The trial collected more than 200 km of data to help IAG and Heathrow assess potential opportunities for using autonomous vehicles around airports.

Trials have also been undertaken at Gatwick, shuttling staff across the airfield in autonomous vehicles. No passengers or aircraft were involved in this first trial, which was limited to airside roads between the airport’s North and South terminals.

“Airports offer an incredibly interesting domain for our autonomous driving software,” explains Graeme. “There is a huge diversity of vehicles, each with a very specific mission. However, the challenge of choreographing all the activity around an individual plane, or in support of airport operations is immense.”

One issue which could be a big potential problem is the hacking of an autonomous vehicle’s software systems. “Cyber security is a big issue everywhere and something we are paying a lot of attention to. We are working with Nominet, the UK’s official registry for domain names, to design the cyber security of the system, which will all be built in. We think it’s probably as safe, or safer, than your bank account.”

“Autonomous vehicles will save lives”

It’s not just the physical environment which has to change to meet the autonomous vehicle challenge. It’s the infrastructure around their deployment, and another big issue is how to insure this new class of car.

Some insurance companies are more forward-thinking than others, says Graeme. “The insurer AXA XL is looking to work with us on understanding autonomous vehicles to better develop their underwriting of the sector.

“One of the reasons we feel confident in the future of autonomous vehicles is that they can reduce 90 per cent of road accidents. Our software is pretty advanced – we are certainly leading the way in Europe.”

Mapping technology extends to London and beyond

Late last year, the company joined forces with the Addison Lee Group. The two companies are now collaborating on the development and operation of autonomous vehicles to provide customers with selfdriving services in London by 2021.

The partners are using Oxbotica’s mapping technology at Canary Wharf to record every kerb, road sign, landmark and traffic light on the 128-acre estate.

This is the first stage of a major mapping exercise across the capital, where more than 250,000 miles of public roads must be mapped before a fully autonomous service can be rolled out.

Oxbotica also has global ambitions. Last September it raised £14 million from investors IP Group plc, Parkwalk Advisors and insurer AXA XL to scale its activities in Europe, Asia and the US market.

In the race to be the first, there are other global companies making significant headway in autonomous vehicle technology. Google launched its Waymo self-driving car project in 2009, and last year partnered with Jaguar to create the world’s first premium electric self-driving vehicle: The Jaguar I-PACE.

Google has also received a permit from the California Department of Motor Vehicles for up to 40 fully autonomous cars to drive on city streets, rural highways and highways, at speeds of up to 65mph. Waymo is the first company in California allowed to test robot cars on public roads with no human driver behind the steering wheel.

Graeme is pragmatic about the competition. “We see them as a big ice breaker leaving clear blue water behind for us and others to enjoy.”

Oxbotica has bigger fish to go after. The company is looking east. “We are receiving interest from China,” says Graeme.

“The country is building green cities where there will be no car ownership. This will radically change the urban layout. The city will own the cars, which it will provide as a service to residents.” This shift away from personally-owned modes of transport is referred to as Mobility as a Service (MaaS), and many consider it a solution to traffic congestion in the world’s biggest cities.

Off-road autonomous opportunities

The media is fixated on autonomous vehicles on public roads, but is roadbased technology the biggest opportunity for Oxbotica?

Not necessarily, says Graeme. “We are different to other companies and are not myopic about road cars. Our technology could be deployed in other sectors, including off-road construction, defence, mining, logistics – even in supermarkets, as well as airports where we have already undertaken trials.

“Our end product is a white label solution which third parties can license to integrate with their own products. We partner with companies in several industries, and our collaboration with Addison Lee is a great example of that.

Oxfordshire’s “Living Laboratory” for driverless car adoption

Oxfordshire is ahead of the game nationally in offering itself up as a “living laboratory” to support the roll- out of autonomous vehicles on UK roads. The county council is the first in the UK to have a connected and autonomous vehicle (CAV) strategy and to include them in its future planning, including for Didcot’s new garden town.

Dr George Economides is Team Leader for Connected and Autonomous Vehicles at Oxfordshire County Council. He said: “The problem is not the car, but the integration into the city. We want a strategy to implement new mobility.”

The council currently has seven projects running related to its autonomous vehicle strategy, of which the Oxbotica-led DRIVEN is just one. The other six look at vehicle usage, air quality, the use of sensors on CAVS  to monitor road quality and street  assets, traffic prediction and the integration between CAVs and mobility as a service (MaaS).

MaaS is seen as a practical alternative to car ownership where customers can call up a car, or use other forms of transportation, at any time rather than owning and expensively maintaining their own. According to the RAC the average car spends about 80 per cent of the  time parked at home, is parked elsewhere for about 16 per cent of the time and is only actually in use for four per cent of the time.

By Nicky Godding – Editor-in-Chief