Self-driving vehicles: The UK is ready to join the global race

London-based startup Wayve has raised $1 billion to put its self-driving software into modern cars.  (Bloomberg)
London-based startup Wayve has raised $1 billion to put its self-driving software into modern cars. (Bloomberg)

Summary

  • Efforts by Apple, Ford and Uber to make autonomous cars have mostly failed, while overhype by Musk and tough scrutiny in the US suggest the industry is stalling. Can friendly regulation and AI talent help British hopefuls succeed?

The market for driverless cars has been through a reckoning. Efforts by Apple, Ford Motor Company and Uber to make AI-driven vehicles have mostly failed, while chronic overhype by Elon Musk and tougher regulatory scrutiny in the US all suggest the industry is stalling. But not all hope is lost. Google’s Waymo, General Motors’ Cruise and some Chinese firms are still pursuing driverless projects. Now, the UK is racing forward too.

London-based startup Wayve has raised $1 billion to put its self-driving software into modern cars. The funding mostly came from existing investors including Microsoft, Nvidia and Softbank, and it came just days before the UK also passed a comprehensive law that will let driverless cars onto British roads by 2026. The regulations are the first to address one of the industry’s big problems: exaggeration.

Also read: CEO Barra backs GM's push for autonomous vehicles

The UK’s Automated Vehicles Act has a section titled, “Communications likely to confuse as to autonomous capability," which bans companies from creating confusion over whether their cars can drive themselves. It’s a sharp but subtle policy that the industry has long needed, given how much puffery has raised expectations that the industry has failed to deliver on. Among his many pronouncements, Musk once tweeted that Tesla cars would self-drive as well as humans by 2021, the same year Ford also predicted it would sell cars without steering wheels. Both were wrong.

“How you set and meet expectations to the customer is really important," says Alex Kendall, Wayve’s chief executive officer. Kendall, who’s originally from New Zealand, co-founded the company in 2017 while studying at Cambridge University for his PhD in deep learning, an approach to building artificial intelligence.

Cambridge has a legacy of AI breakthroughs from scientists like Alan Turing, but like the rest of the UK, its spin-offs have struggled to commercialize cutting-edge research in the same way Silicon Valley has.

Wayve’s mega funding round, which was the biggest-ever for an AI company in Europe—even more than that of French AI hotshot Mistral—suggests Britain’s market for deep-tech startups may be starting to get the late-stage financing they need to grow. This raises hope for the likes of Oxa, a driverless car spinout from Oxford University that sells self-driving software to enterprise customers like grocery delivery and mining companies and raised $140 million last year.

Neither Wayve nor Oxa have disclosed their most recent valuations.

Wayve also focuses on building software rather than making cars and is capitalizing on hardware being built into forthcoming cars. Kendall tells me that many vehicles that were made last year by leading carmakers are already equipped with the necessary equipment to drive autonomously, including powerful computer chips and plenty of cameras facing the vehicles’ front and back.

Hence why Wayve “doesn’t require expensive retrofits," according to Kendall. While other autonomous driving efforts have relied on expensive lidar sensors and high-definition maps to drive, the startup uses its own large neural network which can ‘see’ through cameras and also take voice commands, to drive. Kendall says Tesla pivoted to this approach late last year, which allows an AI system to drive different types of vehicles, or traverse new cities that it hasn’t been driven in before.

Also read: Tesla faces strong self-driving rivals in China

Kendall has an animal-kingdom analogy to explain this approach: The mantis shrimp is technically the creature with the best eyes (sensors), but humans capitalize on eyesight best thanks to our superior intelligence (Wayve’s AI). To enhance that technology, Wayve takes footage collected from cameras on its test-driven cars and plans to collect more through its licensing deals with car manufacturers. Kendall declined to name the carmakers he’s partnering with.

Britain’s new law should help his efforts as well as those of Oxa and others in the country. “The regulatory environment, if anything, has accelerated our ability to develop this tech," Kendall says.

The UK is still smarting from the slow demise of its car-making industry since the 1990s and the acquisition of marques like Rolls-Royce, Jaguar and Bentley by foreign companies. Car production in the UK has halved since 2016. Should Wayve’s partnerships pan out and its peers capitalize on the new regulations, they could perhaps spark a modern-day revival with autonomous-vehicle technology.

While Chinese companies are closing the gap with America on autonomous cars, a friendly regulatory environment in the UK coupled with AI expertise from some of the world’s finest universities means the Brits are emerging as viable contenders in that race too. ©bloomberg

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