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Europe’s self-driving start-ups navigate a trickier road

Different challenges such as roads originally designed for horses, weather that interferes with sensors and a lack of financing are forcing European firms to be more creative than their US counterparts

By Helen Reid and Eric Onstad  /  Reuters, OXFORD, England

A passenger vehicle travels autonomously using Oxbotica software during a trial on public roads in Oxford, England, on June 27.

Photo: Reuters

Far from the sunny, wide streets of Phoenix, where Waymo’s self-driving taxis ply their trade, a handful of European start-ups are developing driverless vehicles to navigate the clogged, chaotic, rain-swept roads of European cities.

Start-ups, such as Oxbotica, FiveAI and Wayve, that are testing vehicles in Britain say the old continent is a unique proposition with quirks and challenges that tech giant Alphabet Inc’s Waymo, Uber Technologies Inc, Aurora and others have yet to crack.

Operating on a shoestring relative to their US rivals, the European start-ups say they have been forced to be creative and focus on cheaper, more tailored technologies that could cope in a heavy downpour on a busy London street.

“A car trained to drive on the wide open highways of Arizona isn’t going to survive on the streets of Croydon. It’s a totally different environment,” said Alex van Someren, venture capital investor at Amadeus Capital Partners, which has a stake in FiveAI.

The start-ups hope that by developing systems and software that work in the most trying circumstances, they will be in a prime position when deep-pocketed US firms expand into new regions to capitalize on a future of self-driving vehicles.

According to the Boston Consulting Group (BCG), the era of connected high-tech vehicles is expected to generate about US$150 billion of new profits for the auto sector by 2035, making the race to nail the technology a potentially lucrative one.

Some investors estimate one-fifth of global new vehicle sales will be self-driving vehicles by 2030.

While only a handful of start-ups are likely to survive, investors have poured US$70 billion of private investment since 2014 into more than 3,400 firms globally involved in “new mobility,” ranging from autonomous driving to ride hailing to electric scooters to machine learning, BCG says.

In the English university city of Oxford, Paul Newman cofounded robotics and self-driving company Oxbotica to develop “universal autonomy” software that could be sold to any automaker, fleet operator, delivery firm or transport company.

The company has been testing its software in a Ford Mondeo crowned with assorted cameras and sensors on the busy streets of the city, driving the same loop, down the high street and past the Red Lion pub, five times a day for three months.

Repeating different circuits over and over again with its fleet of vehicles gives the company a baseline to measure its progress, and in tricky areas it allows the software to come up with new data relevant to a specific place, Newman said.

“The negotiations one has to do with bicyclists and undergraduates in the early hours — around streets that frankly were designed for ponies — in these European cities is a little bit different,” he said.

The firm plans to open offices in North America and China, and aims to launch a self-driving taxi service in 2021 in London on specific routes — with a safety driver present — as part of a consortium working with cab company Addison Lee.

Oxbotica’s public road trials are labor-intensive and costly, and demonstrate the extent of the challenge facing companies aspiring to take on Waymo and Uber on a shoestring.

Like Wayve and FiveAI, Oxbotica is making do with a fraction of the funding doled out in the US to futuristic transport companies. It has received funding of £22.6 million (US$28.4 million), while FiveAI has raised US$37.7 million, data from Crunchbase showed.

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