A jump start for the auto industry

Last week, Elon Musk announced that Tesla is willing to share their entire patent portfolio with competing car manufacturers, a very unorthodox decision.

Patents are Tesla’s most precious asset and by sharing them the company loses the only edge it has over other car companies, but it seems there is a method to this madness.

What Tesla’s CEO understands better than anyone is the automotive industry’s resilience to change. Unorthodox means might be the only way for the company to penetrate the market.

He believes that Tesla can now incentivise other car manufacturers to finally start producing electric vehicles and give battery powered cars a fighting chance.

The Road to Nowhere?

Since the introduction of the Model T in 1908, the car has remained largely unchanged. It might have become faster, more reliable and more efficient over those 100 years but no radical new ideas have managed to take hold.

The automotive industry is a tough nut to crack but different organisations around the world have dared to think that they can and the big players are starting to feel the pressure.

People are generally pleased with the way their cars work and, as a result, companies aren’t incentivised to change. But despite what consumers think there are fundamental problems with the way we get around.

The biggest one is that our reliance on fossil fuels seems to be increasing every year at the expense of our planet. Other problems include congestion, long commuting and safety.

Tesla isn’t the only company trying to provide solutions to these problems. Google has a far more radical idea of how to solve our motoring problems and it involves removing what it considers to be the biggest problem of all - the driver.

"Now I think there's a vision here, a new technology, and I'm really looking forward to a time when generations after us look back at us and say how ridiculous it was that humans were driving cars"

Sebastian Thrun: Google driverless car

Self-driving technology is being developed by a handful of companies around the world. From BMW with their self-drifting M series to Mercedes and Nissan’s own iterations of self-driving cars and Volvo's convoy technology, all these examples still have someone behind the wheel ready to take control whenever they need to - something that Google believes defeats the purpose.

Moving up a gear

The search engine giant is willing to take the concept of self-driving cars as far as it can and a few weeks ago it showed the world the next step towards fulfilling that dream. The new iteration of Sebastian Thrun’s brain child no longer requires a wheel or brakes - a person simply enters, tells the car where they want to go and the car takes them.

The small electric city car has a plastic windshield for pedestrian safety and even a smiling face on the front. These design choices were carefully thought out to make the car appear as unintimidating as possible.

Google’s goal and most obvious selling point for this technology is that they will be able to decrease the number of traffic incidents significantly or even get rid of them all together - according to the WHO, 1.24 million people die each year as a result of road traffic collisions.

It's an ambitious goal, but Google certainly has the miles to back it up - the cars had, by the end of April, completed 700,000 miles (28 times around the globe) on public roads without crashing, at least when the machine was in charge.

For the time being, Google's brand new pods are far from a consumer product and perfecting the technology will just be the start. The company doesn’t just want to change the way we use cars - they want to change the way we buy them, as we stop thinking of the car as an owned asset and start seeing it as a service used on demand.

The company’s intent is that self-driving cars will be available for hire 24/7 and people will be able to call one by using a smartphone app. This might explain why Google Ventures has recently invested $258 million in UBER, a smartphone app that calls a taxi - the biggest amount of money it has invested in any company to date. UBER has recently gone as far as to say that in the future it will replace all their drivers with self-driving cars.

Google want to change the way we buy them, as we stop thinking of the car as an owned asset and start seeing it as a service used on demand

But no matter how good the technology gets, there is one problem the company will have a hard time getting over - the consumer’s natural mistrust of its product. A study in February found that 88 per cent of adults wouldn’t feel comfortable as a passenger in a self-driving car.

Furthermore, what will happen to all the people whose livelihood depends on driving? Last week cab-drivers went on strike across Europe protesting UBER’s infiltration into their market - how will they react when UBER tries to replace them with self-driving cars?

A new way to move

Among all the recent developments, it looks like the UK is gearing up to enter the game. On my recent visit to the new transport systems catapult offices, I attended a talk by Neil Fulton on the new LUTZ pathfinder project.

Low Carbon Urban Transport Zone (LUTZ) is a programme that exploits Milton Keynes significant potential as a test bed for innovative transport systems. One of the most exciting iterations of LUTZ is the pathfinder, a project that involves autonomous vehicles built to move not on the street but on the pavement.

The pods are meant to increase the number of mobility options available for the public, while also reducing congestion and carbon emissions. They will be able to carry two passengers and have a top speed of 12 kilometres per hour.

The company tasked with building the pathfinder is RDM automotive, while the mechanism that allows it to move around came out of the RobotCar project developed by the Oxford University Mobile Robotics Group (MRG).

The truly interesting thing about this mechanism is that it does not require GPS. The pod uses sensors like cameras, radars, lasers, aerial photos and on-the-fly internet queries to build and learn a robot's view of the world. This means that the more it travels along a route, the better it gets at understanding its surroundings, bringing about so-called Infrastructure-Free Navigation.

Remarkably, this technology costs less than £5,000, while a Google-modified Prius would costs close to $320,000.

Around the corner

The first pod is planned to be delivered by the end of this year to Oxford, where MRG is going to install its technology and do some initial testing in early 2015. The pods will then be ready for testing on the pavements of Milton Keynes.

A key question that this trial will answer is one that Google had faced themselves. Coming up to an intersection, Google cars were too nice and as result let everybody pass before they went through - so how aggressively should we promote the pod?

No one really knows where the answers to these questions will lead, or even that the technology will catch on at all, but it is exciting to see change in a sector that has remained stagnant for so long.

Photo Credit: Lokan Sardari on Flickr CC


Chrysostomos Meli

Chrysostomos Meli

Chrysostomos Meli

Technology Futures intern

Chrysostomos was the Technology Futures intern in Nesta’s Policy and Research team. His work focused on identifying and researching technological innovations for the Hot Topics events …

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