Sun, Jul 14, 2019 - Page 16 News List

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

By way of comparison, General Motors Co’s self-driving division Cruise raised US$1.15 billion in new equity in May, valuing the unit at US$19 billion, while California-based driverless delivery start-up Nuro raised US$940 million in February.

The amount of venture capital funding going into autonomous vehicle and tech companies in Europe doubled last year, but was still a tiny fraction of the amount pumped into US start-ups. The European firms pulled in US$89 million last year, just 2 percent of the venture capital funding collected by US companies, data from CB Insights showed.

US start-ups might benefit from generous funding, but Europeans argue the yawning gap in financing — coupled with the particular regional needs — has pushed them to find cheaper ways to plug the technological gaps.

Lidar, for example, the laser pulse technology used widely in US autonomous vehicles, struggles to paint an accurate picture of a vehicle’s surroundings once rain, fog or snow set in, so developers in Europe are testing a range of other tools.

“The challenges we have to solve here are subtly different and that calls for a different set of sensors ... and more emphasis on image and video processing, use of visual techniques for localization,” FiveAI founder and CEO Stan Boland said. “The deterioration of lidar in the rain is pretty horrendous.”

FiveAI started road tests in the London boroughs of Bromley and Croydon this year and hopes to launch passenger trials next eyar.

Its long-term objective is to operate an autonomous vehicle fleet that would complement public transport.

While Oxbotica’s Newman and Boland argue that lidar has a role to play — alongside other sensors and cameras — Wayve, an autonomous driving company based in the university city of Cambridge, says that the laser technology is unnecessary.

Wayve cofounder Amar Shah said that recent improvements mean you can now obtain reliable relative depth estimates using cameras alone, and that would be far cheaper and more reliable when it comes to mass producing self-driving vehicles.

Wayve would be looking for partnerships in the near future with vehicle makers, suppliers and any other bodies such as regulators involved in developing a driverless future, he said.

He also shrugged off the idea companies such as Waymo and Cruise would pose a serious threat with their bigger financial clout.

“They’ve spent 10 years in Phoenix, Arizona and can barely get out of there, so how can they come to Europe?” Shah said.

Nevertheless, analysts and consultants paint a future dominated by companies such as Uber and Waymo with massive fleets offering cheap monthly subscriptions for on-demand, self-driving vehicles, but full autonomy could still be years away.

“From the first idea that this will happen fairly quickly, now the autonomy winter has come,” said Arthur Kipferler, partner at automotive consultancy Berylls Strategy Advisors.

The challenges the technology faces were highlighted when a pedestrian was killed in March last year by a self-driving vehicle being tested by Uber. The incident caused a temporary halt to Uber’s development program.

“When you get on the ground and you go on a test drive in autonomous vehicles, whether it’s in San Francisco or in China, in unfamiliar, complex urban environments, they’re still a ways off in terms of getting to full autonomy,” said Deborah Orida, global head of active equities at Canada Pension Plan Investment Board, which has invested in self-driving start-ups Aurora and Zoox.

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