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Roborace delivers the goods at Goodwood

Automated driving: racing for acceptance (Photo: Roborace)

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Stephan Giesler
Stephan Giesler

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A glimpse of the future at a historic festival, a big reveal in San Francisco and Germany could be laughing all the way to the bank: we bring you this week’s key stories from the world of automated driving!

Last week, a self-driving car successfully climbed the famed “hill” at the Goodwood Festival of Speed. Robocar – Roborace’s sleek driverless racecar – negotiated the gradual 100m (300ft) ascent that includes narrow hay- and brick-lined passages. Watch it here, or get even closer to the action with a 360o view here. (And watch this if you want to see the Siemens-developed self-driving Ford Mustang “drunkenly meander” up the same hill in another festival showcase event).

The fact that autonomous tech is featuring at this rather traditional event is, in itself, a sort of “foot in the door” moment for acceptance. But Roborace’s Deputy CEO, Rod Chong had more interesting things to say on the topic: including his vision of an AI-human driver team racing series. Speaking to The Sunday Times, he said: “We think automated driving technology can be fun and exciting…to engage the imagination of the public, it should be a really exciting, sexy, fast car.”  And I agree. In order for any innovative tech to be accepted, it must first make sense - obviously. But being perceived as ‘cool’ on top of that will certainly help win over hearts and minds.

Roborace is essentially using a sort of “gamification” to acquaint average Joe with automated cars. And while a worthwhile venture, it is still a long way from the real world – where the aim of the ‘game’ is safely transporting humans through a cluttered and complex environment.

Incidentally, this is something Zoox managed to demonstrate this week on the other side of the pond...

Zoox opens its doors to the world

Up until last week, there was very little known about what was going on behind closed doors of the San Francisco-based self-driving car start-up Zoox. But a recently secured funding round to the tune of $500 million (which puts the company value at a total of $3.2 billion) coincided with the company opening those doors to Bloomberg.

What they discovered was a technologically advanced robotic car and autonomous software system – built in-house from the ground up – as well as a bullish attitude from the minds behind it: “We are a start-up pitted against the biggest companies on the planet,” says co-founder Tim Kentley-Klay. “But we believe deeply that what we’re building is the right thing.”

The “thing” they are building is a prototype electric sand-buggy-esque robotic vehicle or ‘mule’, which it hopes to bring into production by 2020 as a ride-hailing fleet. The firm is also testing its software in somewhat more conventional Toyota Highlanders in San Francisco – and from the video demo, it seems the system’s understanding of urban, freeway and dense downtown scenarios is already pretty comprehensive.

While other players have been developing their automated offerings in full view of the public, Zoox, like Apple (who, as it turns out, is hiding quite a sizeable self-driving tech team,) has been in stealth mode and this is its big reveal. Technologically impressive, sure. But whether brave or naïve remains to be seen.  

Think about it: cooperation is en vogue in the industry at the minute, with partnerships and alliances springing up left, right and center. Yet here we have a young (4 years), relatively small (500 employees) company saying it can do it all on its own. It’s taking on the tech giants, and the OEMs of this world which eclipse it in terms of size, financial power and experience.

Having also preached the need for cooperation all along, I’ll definitely be watching this space to see how Zoox fares.

The bottom line

From investing millions to saving billions: a report commissioned by the German Chamber of Industry and Commerce (DIHK) and released last week concludes that autonomous driving could save around 8.3 billion Euros ($9.7 billion) each year (press release available in German only – as is the report, which has been added to our study database).

The report arrived at the figure by using "very cautious estimates" in its projections, saying that Germany could benefit from such savings by as early as 2030. “At the same time, CO2 emissions will be reduced by 6.2 million tons, which is equivalent to the CO2 emissions of a city with 700,000 inhabitants,” explains DIHK CEO Martin Wansleben.

To summarize the 70 page report in full would go beyond the scope of this round-up; but suffice to say that it backs up all the major benefits that we at 2025AD tout (safety, convenience, environmental impact, business opportunity, accessibility…) And it is exactly the sort of fine-grained, deep analysis that I like to see. Too often, a figure is waved about without an adequate breakdown of where exactly the savings would be made. This report does just that: for example, it predicts that platooning could reduce operating costs in German road freight transport by €0.30 per vehicle per kilometer – which amounts to 2.5 billion Euros annually. As the saying goes: look after the pennies and the pounds will look after themselves.

So long, drive safely (until cars are driverless),                         

Stephan Giesler

Editor-in-Chief, 2025AD

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