Autonomous vehicles – the future is here

Mobility is the lifeblood of any economy. And with the UK on a top-priority quest to reduce emissions and congestion, it’s only a matter of time before we see much greater automation in our transport network.

That’s certainly the hope of a group of tech experts, who have set themselves a bold mission to ‘disrupt the transport industry’ through a vision of greener, more efficient mobility for all.

They’re all part of ‘Project Synergy’, which has been created to test and trial a new generation of autonomous vehicles.

The consortium includes Westfield Technology Group, Transport for Greater Manchester, Stockport Metropolitan Borough Council, Manchester City Council, Manchester Metropolitan University, Conigital of Birmingham, Heathrow Airport . . . and Shropshire’s Harper Adams University.

Initially, it’s aimed at developing innovative systems to reshape road transport, but the team say the technology could also be applied in the future to groups of agricultural vehicles such as tractors, combine harvesters and field robots, as well as to groups of drones.

Parmjit Chima, head of engineering at the university, near Newport, says: “The aim of this project is to further develop innovative technologies for connected autonomous vehicles to accelerate adoption of driverless vehicles and allied technologies in the UK.

“This project will introduce innovative technologies to operate connected autonomous cars in a platoon formation from Stockport directly to the arrivals terminal at Manchester Airport.

“Concurrently, a platoon of three pods will transit passengers to and from a car park in the airport to the passenger terminals.

“Project Synergy will facilitate inclusive accessible transport for the aged and the visually impaired. Innovations include rapid battery charging using graphene super-capacitors enabling power sharing between vehicles.

“An Artificial Intelligence system will provide natural conversation concierge service to users.”

The project also involves development of control strategies and sensor technologies to facilitate platooning, design of secure connectivity solutions for real-time communications of the platoon convoy within urban infrastructure, and deployment of resource sharing such as audio and video between the vehicles during platooning operation.

Parmjit says: “This project will lead to the formation of new business models to improve mobility and the environment whilst providing economic growth through new job and business creation.”

For example, the Harper Adams team believe this ‘platooning’ technology could be applied in the future to groups of agricultural vehicles such as tractors, combine harvesters and field robots, as well as to groups of drones.

One of the other key partners involved in the scheme is Conigital, based on the Birmingham Science Park.

With a background in technology consultancy and supporting SMEs with access to technology, founder Don Dhaliwal found what he describes as his ‘true passion’ when he joined the Institute of Design & Economic Acceleration thinktank.

There he became fully exposed to the 21st century problems facing our cities: a need to guarantee free and efficient movement of people and goods, while reducing costs and carbon footprints.

In other words, ‘going zero’ – zero emissions, zero congestion and zero accidents.

The Project Synergy team

Conigital – which stands for ‘connected digital’ – is attacking this with a suite of products using technology to retrofit driverless vehicle and on-demand ride-hailing services.

Don says: “I developed a real passion for addressing the inefficiency of our existing transport networks, lack of infrastructure and the impact this has on everybody’s lives; from transport accessibility, the journey experience, environmental pollution, public health and the sustainable movement of people, goods and services.

“Well before the topic of driverless vehicles became mainstream, I was considering the disruption they were going to bring to our cities, transport system and the key challenges and opportunities they would bring.

“These issues form huge challenges in a city’s ability to realise its ambitions and goals of reducing costs and carbon footprint to create a safer, cleaner, smarter and more sustainable environment for its citizens.”

He says: “The core focus of our business is driverless vehicles and how we can integrate them into our future smart cities.

“These future smart cities are all about people – how we can make life seamless and have access to all the data we need to lead a fully integrated life, including those with any form of disability or visual impairment.”

Five years on, Conigital is now an established international player in the ‘smart mobility’ marketplace, with subsidiaries in Australia and India, and interest from many other countries including Qatar.

Don expects 2021 to be a pivotal year for the business. Last year the company set a target of raising just over £1 million through the Seedrs crowdfunding platform to help finance its plans, and smashed through the target, attracting well over £1.6 million from a collection of more than 170 investors.

It means Conigital has now secured around £4 million to support the construction of its platforms, and truly commercialise its offering through driverless vehicle trials with end customers.

The process has already begun, including a UK first at Southampton airport which has successfully trialled an Alexander Dennis bus retrofitted with their technology.

No wonder the company is earmarked as ‘one to watch’ in 2021, with Conigital voted a top 10 AI company by Intel and Vodafone, and flagged as a star in the making by Technation.

“We have forged key partnerships with major OEMs, private businesses, academic institutions and governmental organisations, both domestic and internationally,” Don adds.

“Some of our most notable achievements in this relatively short period are the automation of two utility vehicles; one of which is to be used as part of a ride-sharing scheme in partnership with the government in New South Wales, Australia.

“Another is the automation of an airport shuttle bus to transport passengers from a long-stay car park to the main airport terminal.”

“In terms of Conigital engagement with Harper Adams specifically, we have also collaborated on the development of a virtual assistance, similar to Alexa or Siri but for the agricultural and farming sectors.

“The concept of the Harper Agricultural Virtual Assistant (HAVA) is that it can be trained to use in a farming environment at home, in the farm or on a vehicle and is designed to recognise key terms/language used in the sector.

“The core element of the product is that is can be connected to a vehicle to make emergency calls using voice activation when the operator or drive is incapacitated.

“HAVA can be fitted, or even retro-fitted, to all type of agricultural machines such tractors, combine harvester, ATV/UTV or even quad bikes.”

So where does the UK sit in terms of being open and ready to embrace this technology in comparison with other nations?

Don believes the UK is in prime position to become one of the leading countries in the world with regards to the introduction of autonomous vehicles.

“The UK government has been committing significant time and resources to support the development and introduction of CAV. The UK industrial strategy highlights grand challenges that include future mobility, and artificial intelligence and data.

“Numerous driverless vehicle and 5G test beds have been set up to assess the viability and stress on the mobile networks which shall be required to support them.

“This is not just in London but includes the West Midlands which is playing its part, especially as it is the home of many OEMs.

“The UK – and especially the Midlands – is really pushing to embrace this technology.”

With the UK being drastically smaller in comparison to other countries such as the US and Australia, Don says it is much quicker to be able to access the facilities required to validate new solutions.

“Given the complex nature of our road infrastructure and variability in our weather compared with these countries, we are also able to test the vehicles in unique situations which helps capture those edge cases that you may not have thought of.

“I find it fascinating how the automotive industry has changed dramatically just in recent years, to adapt to electric vehicles as well as connected and autonomous vehicles. This will all have a knock-on impact on R&D, supply chain and how we view mobility.

“There is much conversation about how the larger automotive companies will keep the barriers to entry high and will continue to dominate the new markets and products that are arising.

“But I feel there is plenty of opportunity for smaller and up-and-coming companies to penetrate areas of the market to support the wider automotive field.

“I am excited to be part of a new product as well as being able to offer jobs and support the UK economy.

“Covid-19 has had a significant impact on many businesses, but I think that we have managed to use the time during lockdown effectively by consolidating on a lot of hard work over the previous four years.

“Yes, it has hindered us through the delays in trials and accessibility to test facilities, but we used those delays to refocus and ensure that we were able to continue development in other areas of the business.

“I think that Covid-19 will have dramatically influenced attitudes towards remote working, safe travel and a zero-carbon society.

“One of the most noticeable things that the pandemic has highlighted is the negative effect that pollution and carbon emissions have on the environment.

“So I think that people will be more accepting of an eco-friendly agenda going forward and may even push harder for more initiatives to reduce our carbon footprint in the future. A good indicator of that is the UK government bringing forward the end of sale of petrol and diesel cars to 2030.”

But we’re often suspicious of innovation – and particularly uncomfortable when we feel we’re not in control. So does Don still think there is a fear over the reliability and safety issues around driverless vehicles which could hold us back?

“I don’t think there is necessarily a fear but more of an apprehension. The technology is still very new, and the vast majority of people have not been exposed to it, other than through what they have read or watched – which can sometimes also cause a hindrance.

“The more trials and demonstrations we carry out to expose the public to the technology, we will start to see that apprehension fade away.

“Alongside this, taking their feedback into consideration after the conclusion of the trials should help gain the public’s trust and faith in us to deliver a driverless vehicle that makes them feel as safe as if a human were behind the wheel.

“AVs will very quickly become the norm and new standards will be set in terms of how quickly you can get across cities. Complaints will be ‘why did it take me 25 instead of 21 minutes?’, whereby that journey today could be twice as long and double the cost.”

Harper Adams University isn’t Conigital’s only connection with our county.

Don explains: “We are also in very early discussions with Shropshire Council about how we can work potentially work together to improve transport and congestion in and around Shropshire including integration of our autonomous vehicles.”