Pat Sweet I assetfinanceinternational
UK start-up Imperium Drive has begun trials of a new on-demand car-hailing service called Fetch using remote-controlled driverless vehicles. Drivers summon an unmanned vehicle via an app, which is navigated by a remote driver to their location. Once the customer has driven to their destination, they end their trip via the phone app and a remote vehicle operator takes over control and pilots the car back to base or to the next user.
Currently the service is on trial in Milton Keynes with a variety of vehicle types, from standard saloon cars to electric microcars, which are equipped with Imperium Drive’s proprietary remote driving software. The technology, based on 5G connectivity, enables remote operators to switch between controlling different cars when required.
The fleet is currently operating on private routes under controlled conditions, but the plan is to include public roads in the next 12 months. The company aims to launch a fully operational remote-operated car-hailing service in the UK in the second half of 2022. It wants to move to fully autonomous vehicles within the next five years.
Koosha Kaveh, CEO of Imperium Drive, said: “For many people, public transport is cheap but inconvenient, while ride-hailing and taxis are convenient but also expensive. Our goal is to make on-demand door-to-door transport more cost-effective and convenient than every alternative, even privately owned cars. There are real environmental benefits too, with the potential to greatly reduce the number of private cars on the road. With Fetch, users hail a car to their doorstep and within minutes can be on their way, driving themselves to their destination in their own time and at their convenience. They don’t even have to worry about parking when they get there.”
Remote driving technology is attractive to fleet operators in the car sharing and short-term rental sector, as it enables them to increase revenue per car. They can relocate cars more quickly at periods of high demand, such as during rush hour, which is key to maximising utilisation rates. They can also extend the reach of their operations to enable intercity travel, while reducing fleet management costs associated with repositioning cars when rental periods end.
The UK Fetch trial is backed by private investment and supported by Milton Keynes Council, with funding also provided by the government’s ‘5G Create’ initiative. It has also been awarded funding by start-up accelerator funds Entrepreneur First and Techstars.
Ford’s autonomous pilots
Ford’s Self-Driving Research Programme, designed to help businesses understand how autonomous vehicles could benefit their operations, is running a trial with a simulated autonomous vehicle at DP World London Gateway, a deep-sea container port in East London. The aim is to demonstrate how useful such future technology could be to those managing – and employed on – large worksites.
For the trial, Ford used a specially adapted Transit fitted out to mimic the look of an actual self-driving vehicle with a driver concealed within a “Human Car Seat”. Employees at the company’s reception building loaded packages into secure lockers in the rear of the Transit. Then, at set delivery times, the Transit travelled to the main reception 3.5 km away so that colleagues there could retrieve them. In the normal way, staff currently retrieve packages from reception themselves. While time consuming, these trips do not warrant a full-time driver.
The process was monitored by researchers who found that employees quickly became comfortable with using the specially equipped van. Some proactively trained colleagues to access their packages, while others were resourceful in overcoming difficulties intentionally introduced by the researchers: such as the wrong parcels being stowed in the wrong lockers.
“Having what appeared to be a self-driving vehicle on site created a real buzz. Everyone wanted to use it. Popping in the car to pick up a package from elsewhere on site might not seem like it takes that long, but across multiple journeys over weeks, months and years, this can add up to a lot of time and money,” said Ernst Schulze, UK chief executive of DP World.
Richard Balch, director, autonomous vehicles and mobility, Ford of Europe, said the company was exploring how existing processes and human interactions can work alongside automated vehicles. “What worked so well at DP World premises could equally be of benefit at universities, airports and manufacturing facilities,” he said.
In June, Ford ran a short trial with doorstep delivery specialist Hermes to assess the potential uses and impact of autonomous vehicles on courier services in cities, and has been testing self-driving technology in major cities across the US in partnership with Argo AI. Ford plans to invest around $7 billion in autonomous vehicles during 10 years through to 2025 – $5 billion of that from 2021 forward – as part of its mobility initiatives.