The article below was originally published by The Telegraph on Tuesday 17 December 2019. It explores the collaborative opportunity between the UK and United States for the development of connected and self-driving vehicles.
Why Silicon Valley has its sights set on the UK as its European driverless car hub
A few years from now, you hail a Waymo driverless taxi through your smartphone app. The car that pulls up may have been built in the US, but the interior is packed with specialist components – cameras, sensors and software – produced from a supply chain across the world.
Some of it may have been developed by a small Oxford university spin-out the Silicon Valley giant snapped up last week.
Software, simulations and artificial intelligence are seen as increasingly vital to the future of safer autonomous vehicles.
And it is this field – building sufficiently intelligent “brains” for driverless cars so they are smart enough to make decisions on their own – where Britain has been quietly proving its mettle.
Last week, Waymo, the driverless car company spun out of Google under parent company Alphabet, acquired a tiny Oxford start-up, Latent Logic. The start-up, until now based on a small side-street just outside the city centre, will now be the centrepiece of a driverless car hub in Europe for Waymo.
“We see an exciting opportunity in Europe benefitting from the world-class technology and engineering capabilities in Oxford and beyond,” says Waymo head of research Drago Angeluov.
In recent years, Britain has emerged as an important hub in the development of autonomous vehicle technology, following a string of deals led by Silicon Valley firms.
But can it succeed in building that expertise – often linked to university research – into a viable future industry?
Latent Logic, with a team of only a dozen or so people, had developed technology that created simulations from raw CCTV footage to find real examples of driving and road behaviours.
A driverless car AI might not be able to calculate what happens if a white van tailgates your car, or someone goes the wrong way around a roundabout. Its technology, however, would be used to build simulations that reflected this real, unpredictable world.
It’s not the first UK start-up to entice a Silicon Valley giant to invest in the UK. Last year, augmented reality start-up Blue Vision Labs was snapped up by San Francisco ride-hailing giant Lyft.
Its technology was used to develop “centimetre-accurate 3D maps” that provided a detailed world for self-driving vehicle technology. It now has a UK office in London.
While these deals for innovative UK start-ups are a vindication of Britain’s academic expertise in driverless car technology, Britain’s ultimate place and stature in the global autonomous vehicle scene remains an open question. Can the UK build a £1bn driverless car start-up, or will it be an outpost of Silicon Valley’s biggest beats in the field?
David Bailey, a professor at the University of Birmingham, says the latter is more likely: “The big money is in the US and China and a lot of companies are turning to Silicon Valley.”
Total venture capital investments in driverless cars topped $10bn (£7.5bn) last year, according to data from PitchBook. The vast majority of this was split between Silicon Valley and China.
The UK, by contrast, has only a handful of headline deals in the tens of millions. In 2017, FiveAI, a Cambridge based start-up, raised $35m. Oxbotica, an Oxford driverless software company, raised £14m. This year, The Telegraph revealed Wayve, a venture founded by Cambridge University graduates, had secured $20m.
Prof Bailey notes: “There are interesting firms in the UK, like those in and around Oxford. On the research side I’m optimistic, on the commercialisation side I am more doubtful.”
According to a report last year from the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders, driverless car technology is set to boost Britain by £62bn by 2030.
The UK Government has set an ambitious goal to make the UK a key player in autonomous vehicles.
The Government established the Centre for Connected and Autonomous Vehicles in 2015 with £250m in funding, to be matched by industry. The Millbrook driverless test centre in Bedfordshire and the RACE centre in Culham, Oxfordshire, have both embraced driverless car start-ups and test programmes.
“We have a lot of momentum,” says Daniel Ruiz, chief executive of industry lobby group Zenzic. “The latent logic acquisition is a real demonstrator of the interest the world has in the UK. But we need to commit to the next five years, and the five years after that.”
Even if such backing is achieved, the biggest players remain in the US. In Silicon Valley, Lyft, the ride-hailing company that rivals Uber, has been developing self-driving technology with giants like Ford. Waymo, which is owned by Google parent Alphabet, has invested billions in building a driverless car service. Analysts have claimed it could be worth $50bn on its own. It has even launched a trial operation in Phoenix, Arizona.
Uber has had cars on the streets of Arizona, Pittsburgh and California. Even Apple has a highly secretive driverless car operation.
According to Stan Boland, chief executive of FiveAI, building a fully functioning driverless car company requires billions in start-up capital, funding it is hard for Britain’s start-ups to attract. Rather, it is on the supply side, of software and artificial intelligence expertise, that the UK is increasingly proving its merit.
“The UK has a strong university system,” he says. “It attracts talent from across Europe. It is quite feasible the UK could be the first market in Europe to put in place a regulatory system for driverless cars, and feasible it might be the first in Europe to launch those services.”
Boland says the global “poles” of driverless car technology have emerged in the US and China. “The UK has got more than its fair share of interesting small to medium sized start-ups,” he says, “but they have to work out how they fit into the whole sector.”
Alexander van Someren, managing partner at Amadeus Capital Partners, which has invested in FiveAI, also notes the huge volumes of capital needed to create a company that could compete with Waymo and Uber make it a tough sell to investors.
“It is courageous to try and expect to build a business that does everything in autonomous vehicles in the UK,” he says, and while it is unlikely “that’s nothing to be ashamed of”.
Instead, he says, “UK companies can carve out one or more chunks of the technology stack. The engineering quality at Oxford and Cambridge helps.”
Some of the most promising UK companies that have worked on technology that might ultimately feature in driverless cars have little in common with the autonomous vehicle businesses being built by Waymo or Uber.
Oxbotica, spun out of Oxford’s prestigious Robotics Institute is developing autonomous vehicle software that that can be universally applied, from cars to mining vehicles or industrial robots.
Bristol’s Graphcore, while not perhaps lumped in as a company working on autonomous vehicle tech, raised $200m late last year from investors including BMW. It is building semiconductor chips that are tuned for artificial intelligence algorithms and is planning a range that will be used for driverless car manufacturers.
The UK’s driverless car technology scene is ripe with companies that could fill this technology supply chain companies. “Every part of the puzzle is really complicated for self driving,” says FiveAI’s Boland. “The UK can develop the technology to allow people to solve those problems.”
What remains unclear is whether many of these companies can survive on their own, or will their intellectual property and expertise be snapped up and shipped out to Silicon Valley – part of a brain drain to US firms that has worried British venture investors.
Amadeus’s van Someren contends the UK has the potential to build valuable businesses in this supply network. “The IP behind these solutions is extremely complex. Specialist suppliers can make substantial businesses.”
And interest from companies like Waymo and Lyft is likely to continue as they use the UK as a test bed for Europe. “There is already interest [in other start-ups],” says Amadeus’s van Someren, “we are constantly getting interest in these UK-based innovations.”