C2I 2022 Automotive Winner - On the road with zero occupancy autonomy

Being based on opposite sides of the world was no barrier to the partners in this groundbreaking autonomous vehicle project. Andrew Wade reports.

Oxbotica and AppliedEV are exploring the development of a fully autonomous, multi-purpose electric vehicle
Oxbotica and AppliedEV are exploring the development of a fully autonomous, multi-purpose electric vehicle - Oxbotica / Applied EV


Category: Automotive - sponsored by Igus

Headline sponsor: Babcock International Group

Project: Europe’s first zero-occupancy autonomous vehicle journey on publicly-accessible roads

Partners: Oxbotica with Applied EV

The initial heady promise of autonomous vehicles (AVs) was always going to face a bumpy road to fruition. At times it has felt that each forward step has been followed by two back, with passenger safety and real-word complexity proving inevitable brakes on the sector’s progress. Addressing those issues has been central for our winner in the Automotive category, marking a major leap forward for safe, autonomous driving.

‘Europe’s first zero-occupancy autonomous vehicle journey on-road’ may not be the snappiest project title in this year’s C2I, but you can’t fault it for descriptive accuracy. Oxbotica – a longstanding UK pioneer in AV software – teamed up with Australia’s Applied EV to deliver a first of its kind - a fully autonomous outing on publicly accessible UK roads. The collaboration took off after Oxbotica ‘scoured the Earth’ for the right vehicle platform to pair with its latest software advances. 

With teams on opposite sides of the world...the time difference had the advantage of giving us a near-24hr cycle of productivity

“It was like finding the final piece of the puzzle,” said Graham Taylor, Oxbotica’s head of Deployment. “We’d been seeking to showcase the prowess of our operating system for Universal Autonomy™ for use in industrial domains, but we had to find a way to reduce the risk involved, quickly and safely.

“To ensure that all safety concerns would be resolved by our technology alone, the answer was to make the leap to a vehicle that removed the human driver entirely, but because we don’t make vehicles, we had to find one. Applied EV’s Blanc Robot is a cabinless, ‘application ready’ vehicle platform that could be driven by our software. In the end it was easy. We asked: ‘Can we have it?’ Their answer? A resounding ‘Yes!’”

An autonomous, cabinless vehicle comes with its own unique challenges however, not all of which involve high end engineering and software development. Sometimes innovation means breaking new ground in regulatory systems that simply aren’t designed for the future. The project was the first autonomous demo to require a license plate, presenting the team with an unexpected conundrum.

“V55-4 - Box 18 asks you to specify the number of seats,” said Taylor. “Our vehicle is cabinless, so of course the answer was zero, but we had to answer ‘one’ or it would have upset the system. This perfectly exemplifies the challenges of getting self-driving vehicles deployed at scale. It takes a whole ecosystem of regulators and other stakeholders to make autonomy a safe commercial reality, so part of our role is bringing them on the journey with us. We’re innovating together.”  

Another challenge for the collaboration was the geographical distance between Oxbotica and Applied EV. Perhaps if one positive can be taken from the Covid pandemic, it’s that these sorts of distances are no longer viewed as impediments, with better communications and workflow tools available, and remote/hybrid working now a mainstay of most organisations. UK and Australian workdays even dovetailed to allow the project to advance around the clock at times. 

“As with everything, communication is key,” said Emily Williams, lead systems integration engineer at Oxbotica.

With teams on opposite sides of the world, connectivity was essential, which allowed us to control the vehicle from thousands of miles away. When we had momentum, the time difference had the advantage of giving us a near-24hr cycle of productivity; while they were asleep, we were progressing, and while we were asleep, they were progressing.”

According to Applied EV’s CEO, Julian Broadbent, most of the cross-hemisphere work was carried out over Microsoft Teams.

“But to tell the truth, the most powerful tool in our arsenal was the ‘get it done’ attitude we share,” he said. “Everything became about finding solutions to any challenge that arose. There was no oxygen given to setbacks. We just got on with it because that’s what we both do. I think it helped, too, that like us, Oxbotica is very much a disruptor. They’re impatient to succeed with an autonomous solution that can deliver real value, right now.”   

In May 2022, powered by Oxbotica’s software, Blanc Robot took to public roads in Oxford, quietly and safely passing a major milestone for autonomous driving. Working alongside the likes of Wenco International Mining Systems and Ocado Group, the partners are now seeking to commercialise the technological progress across industrial and logistical environments. In 2024, autonomous passenger shuttles and industry-specific vehicles will be launched in partnership with bp, NEVS and ZF.

“Oxbotica is deploying autonomy to help bp to accelerate its path to net zero,” said Ben Upcroft, VP of Technology at Oxbotica. “But it’s not just the energy industry that will benefit in the near term. Our partnership with Applied EV has given us the world’s first turn-key third-party solution for markets that have immediate economic business cases, and a mature regulatory environment to enable deployment at scale. That means mining, construction and agriculture as well as wind farms, solar farms and oil refineries.”

It’s the partnership with Ocado that is perhaps most interesting and most likely to be visible to the UK public. Last mile logistics is ripe for autonomy and has already been infiltrated to some degree by the likes of Starship Technologies’ delivery robots. Bigger vehicles with much larger capacity are the logical next step. With Ocado being an investor in Oxbotica’s recent $140m Series C funding round, it seems inevitable that the pair – alongside Applied EV – will soon be making the UK’s first autonomous grocery deliveries.

“We’ll learn more this year as our partnerships with Ocado Group and Applied EV evolve, but we’re certainly very optimistic and excited about this collaboration and about last-mile logistics as a whole,” said Oxbotica’s Taylor. “Self-driving technology has real potential to help businesses striving to optimise efficiency, reduce costs and improve operations, as well as reducing their carbon footprint. Watch this space - autonomous delivery is not a case of “if” but when.”