Going for a test drive in the smart car revolution

 Oxbotica

Geni, a fully autonomous electric pod, and its team of Oxford engineers

A company started by Oxford academics is a driving force berhind autonomous vehicle technology. Mark Piesing was invited along for a ride in their new self-driving vehicle.

Read my first piece for the i newspaper and double page colour spread in full below or the original here.

It was great to be invited to cover the launch of the Geni along with the BBC, The Economist and MIT Tech Review.

Check out my first piece on Oxbotica that was actually in Wired magazine this September.

 

Somehow it seemed appropriate that I had come to the UK Atomic Energy Authority’s Culham Science Centre for the launch of the first British “fully autonomous electric pod”, the Geni.

Home to the UK’s national laboratory for nuclear fusion research, Culham is much more Area 51 than Midsomer Murders, despite being hidden away in beautiful South Oxfordshire. I even needed my passport to be allowed through security.

However, the Geni (inset) itself doesn’t look threatening. It is a small two-seat city-car-sized vehicle with an Oxford Blue colour scheme. It looks a bit like a Smart car crossed with a dune buggy. It even has a steering wheel.

There the resemblance to a conventional car stops. Autonomous vehicles are intelligent cars that can drive themselves without the need of human intervention – but pods, specifically, are vehicles designed to move slowly in spaces shared by pedestrians.

“To begin with it is unnerving to see the wheel turn without anyone touching it, but I get used it”

The front of the Geni has three cameras built into its bumper and a laser on each side. It has flimsy plastic gull-wing doors that I have to clamber through. Behind the seat, a funky blue LED display proudly says Selenium.

Straight in front of me is a large iPad on a mount. The researcher in the driver’s seat touches an icon on the screen. The computer checks it knows where it is and where it is going. Then the screen says “Autonomy is available now” and we are off on the pre-programmed route across the concrete yard, a tarmac road and gravel.

To begin with it is unnerving to see the wheel turn without anyone touching it, but I get used it. The lack of control hits me again when the car has to make a series of sharp turns to take us through a maze of cones. Finally, I swear the Geni is showing off when it skids to a stop on the gravel at the end.

Being a Brit, and a journalist, perhaps it was natural that I was fairly cynical about autonomous cars to begin with. Now I want one.

Letting the Geni out of the bottle

The Geni is the product of Oxbotica, a 25-person Oxford University spinout founded by the charismatic professors Paul Newman and Ingmar Posner (inset). Newman is one of the chiefs of the university’s world-leading Mobile Robotics Group.

Last month Oxbotica won the Frost & Sullivan Technology Leadership Award for its mobile robotic software. The Geni replaces their first “robot car”, a Nissan Leaf fitted with three types of sensors and six cameras to enable it to drive autonomously.

“We built the Geni so that we had a platform on which we could show off its software on pavements, in warehouses and on the road,” says Dr Graeme Smith, CEO of Oxbotica.

This is Selenium – machine intelligent software whose job it is to make sense of the data it receives from cameras, lasers or other sources, such as GPS, to help it work to out its position, what is happening around it and where it has to go. Like a human, the more journeys it makes, the better it becomes. It is platform-agnostic, which means it can drive any vehicle equipped with the right hardware, whether a dumper truck or a Mars rover.

Elements of the software can be used to add autonomous features to existing manual machines such as a forklift to automate a painful process such as identifying junction boxes on a railway.

Selenium will often work in concert with a cloud-based service known as Caesium, which will connect the autonomous pods together to co-ordinate themselves and learn from each other.

“Oxbotica has been founded on the principle that there is an infinite number of things you can do if you have software that can help a machine work out where it is, what is going on around it and where it has to go next,” says Posner.

Driven by their dreams

Engineers have dreamt of autonomous cars since the 1920s. However, the world had to wait for the technology, and it is only now that cheap processing power, GPS, computer vision, 3D computer modelling and even wi-fi have all come together to shift the autonomous car revolution into top gear.

Carnegie Mellon University started to build the first of its Navlab computer-controlled vehicles in 1984. The US defence research and development agency Darpa staged the first long-distance competition for autonomous vehicles in 2005. Google’s fleet of autonomous Toyota Priuses hit the road in 2010, while Google unveiled its purpose-built car in 2014. Apple and Uber have now joined the race. Nissan, Ford and Volvo have started to develop their own cars; Jaguar Land Rover aims to create a fleet of 100 cars in Britain by 2020 to test autonomous vehicle technologies.

Many other players are keen to develop autonomous technologies, including Formula One.

However, it is said that cars are only a small market. What this is really about is the race to develop the complex software like Selenium that can be used to automate warehousing, the military or space exploration.

Newman is only half-joking when he tells me that Oxbotica’s software is licensed only to be used on Mars. He is not when he says they have defence work.

The company that perfects the software first will have the opportunity to embed its technology at the core of society.

Concerns over privacy and hacking

Before this can happen, concerns over privacy, hacking and safety need to be addressed. After all, in May the first known fatal accident involving a self-driving vehicle took place in Florida. Joshua Brown, the 40-year-old driver (or rather, passenger) was killed after his Tesla car could not spot a white car against the background of a bright sky, according to the manufacturer.

In the end, it is likely that the autonomous car revolution will be a slow revolution. In closed spaces such as mines and warehouses, autonomous vehicles are already being introduced.

“It only took six people to create Windows and change the world, and we have some of the smartest people on the planet working for us”

Dr Graeme Smith, CEO of Oxbotica

On public roads adoption is liable to be much slower, with autonomous features such as electronic stability control and Tesla’s autopilot being introduced gradually, until at some point cars become fully autonomous.

For Oxbotica, the next step is for the Selenium software to be used to drive eight-person autonomous pods around the Greenwich peninsula in London and two-person Lux pods in Milton Keynes to help assess public attitudes to autonomous vehicles. It is in talks with the online retailer Ocado to develop a cargo pod.

“Can we compete with Google? We are not trying to compete with Google’s 3,000 people,” says Smith. “It only took six people to create Windows and change the world, and we have some of the smartest people on the planet working for us.”

“We have a plan and we know what we are going to do,” says Newman. “The technology isn’t even an issue any more.”

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