Self-Driving Cars

In a new development in the world of self-driving cars, cab firm Addison Lee this week put a date on its self-driving taxi plans, saying that it wants to roll out a fleet by 2021. Though there are all sorts of self-driving car developments going on, it’s a bold move to put a hard deadline on such a project.

Some would argue that rather than “bold”, the move could rather be interpreted as “foolish”, given the nascent state of the self-driving cars industry. Other, very big, firms have had significant problems with technology, regulation, and tragic accidents. To put a hard date in the public domain, and only three years at that, will be a tough ask.

The firm will be working with self-driving software specialist Oxbotica, it says, which will map out the country in minute detail, down to “kerbs, road signs and traffic lights”, according to the BBC.

The Motivation

Through that partnership, Addison chief Andy Boland said, it wants to offer shared minibus services to passengers – in order to “address congestion, free space used for parking and improve urban quality”.

This is a common desire amongst the firms working on autonomous driving – it is expected that the technology, once widely implemented, will completely change the way roads, cities and urban planning works. It is also anticipated that a wide system of autonomous cars would massively reduce accidents.

The BBC article on Addison Lee’s announcement notes that last year, the firm made losses of nearly £21 million. It is evident that banking on autonomous driving is seen as a worthy, and necessary, investment – a firm losing more than £20 million a year would not invest in a moonshot.

UK chancellor Philip Hammond also said that he wants the technology on the road by 2021. That means a major taxi firm and a senior politician have indicated that the technology is within touching distance. But how close is it really?

The Challenges

There has been a spate of well-publicised accidents in recent months and years, including the death of pedestrians at the hands of Uber and Tesla self-driving cars. These accidents reveal not only the technical difficulties faced by these vehicles but also that even companies that are investing huge amounts into the challenge are struggling.

On a less drastic scale, Tesla recently pulled the “self-driving feature” from its Model 3 car, with founder Elon Musk saying on Twitter that it caused “too much confusion”. Given that that feature could not be used, it is understandable that it has been pulled. But it also shows that Tesla may have come to an acceptance that the technology is some way off.

The Promise

And yet, many other big companies are trying their hand at the self-driving game. Google has even created its Waymo division, which well-publicised to the endeavour.

Firms like Uber, Google and Tesla all have an inherent sense of modernity about them. They have been disruptors from the start and are all relatively new. But it’s not just these types of companies that are entering the space – the old school are too.

A recent Washington Post article detailed Ford’s plans for a self-driving fleet – it is already gathering data for detailed maps in Washington, and the company said it will start testing cars for real in the District of Columbia “early next year”.

Ford also told the Washington Post that it plans on rolling out its fleet on a commercial basis in 2021 – the same as Addison Lee. The newspaper notes that Waymo has already started offering fully autonomous rides to families in the Phoenix area, though with a safety chaperone on board. This does, though, seem to be the exception.

And Ford executives have said that they think the fact that they aren’t the very first to launch self-driving cars is a good thing. Trust is a huge factor here, so in this case, it has evidently decided that it is better to be right well-publicised than first.

Move Fast and Break Things

It might be that the first company to crack the self-driving car problem might be the next Uber – the “Uber of Ubers”, as it were. But solving the puzzle is not just a case of working on some difficult technology – it means getting it right to the extent that the company can be totally sure that what they are doing is safe. Not only are tragic consequences if not; public mistrust will play a huge role in this industry too.

Aiming for the autonomous vehicles market, then, is a high risk but high reward strategy. “Move fast and break things” has already become a slightly maligned mantra, and one that if applied literally, could stop the self-driving industry altogether.

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