A New Approach to Autonomy

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The ‘Jetson’ phenomenon has heavily conditioned expectations of what autonomy technologies are capable of achieving. But the personal and mass mobility bubble, with or without flying saucers, has been well and truly popped. It is a paradigm often associated with technology narratives — that they are rarely constrained by humdrum reality and that means any progress – significant or otherwise – will always fall short of the extravagance of public imagination.

The Jetsons and the extravagance of public imagination…

And while the perception gap between the public notion of autonomy and the reality is significant, so too within the autonomous technology community are a number of tacit admissions that maybe ambition might be outstripping capability — look no further than Waymo’s much publicised scaling back of the scope of their Phoenix launch programme as much as a multiplicity of missed deadlines on driverless project roll-outs. And the problem is not unique to Waymo, of course, with Uber’s progress still only creeping forward under the cloud of last year’s Tempe Arizona fatality.

So are our dreams of autonomous vehicles falling to earth? Or at best, stalling, especially since autonomy’s behemoths themselves are struggling to meet their own self-imposed targets? The disruptors may be about to be disrupted with a new and distinct approach that may fundamentally re-boot how technologists tackle the autonomy paradigm. Mike Potts, CEO of StreetDrone, a full capability autonomy solutions company that is currently running live trials in both central London and Oxford, dismisses any suggestion that next-gen mobility is off the agenda. But, he says, the reason why early ambition has floundered is because practitioners have tackled highly complex, multiple use cases with one single lexicon.

A New Faster, Safer, Easier Approach

The StreetDrone approach, Potts argues, adopts a different starting point.

StreetDrone’s expertise, as an organisation focused on accelerating the development of autonomous technology through testing and trials, is to segment the use cases rather than try to deliver a one-size-fits-all solution. We at StreetDrone focus on zone 1 — the inner city, where autonomy will be legislated into existence by city-states to provide quality of life solutions to congestion and pollution. But this use case is significantly different to zone 2, in suburban areas, where the physical and environmental context is radically different, the mobility platforms and their ownership models are diffuse, and so the differences between use case are more significant than the commonalities. In zone 3, outside of city boundaries, the use case transforms again and demands an adjacent but ultimately, a wholly different approach,” Potts explains.

But the StreetDrone logic does not end with segmenting the use cases and simply making the ‘autonomy’ challenge smaller and thereby simpler by just focusing on urban mobility contexts. While reducing the scope of the autonomy conundrum, StreetDrone also brings more firepower to a smaller set of tasks and thus re-shapes the challenge from multiple perspectives. In short, the StreetDrone approach advocates cracking a smaller nut with a larger hammer.

Go Open, open, open

So how does StreetDrone manage to coalesce more firepower — that is, a larger hammer — to crack the autonomy nut yet contend with the resource and endeavour that the likes of Waymo and Uber have already applied to the autonomy challenge? Potts explains, “Our approach has been ‘open’ from the get-go. And for us, open means three things — at its heart, a collaborative, open-source software platform, supplemented by an open data environment and the ultimate mobility solution realised via an open platform approach. In every aspect of our work, we share, collaborate and partner with our trials partners. What we learn together persists the solution faster, in fact exponentially, as the volume of participants, data and insight contributed from the ecosystem grows by the day.”

Collaboration and an open architecture approach is not a new idea, but it is uniquely suited to the scale of the challenge presented by society’s autonomy ambitions. And what makes it even more appropriate are the complex, multi-stakeholder environments that are part of a successful autonomous mobility solution in a city context — think transit companies, utilities providers for power and connectivity, municipal authorities, real estate owners and businesses. With the benefit of hindsight, it seems very unlikely that a closed architecture approach would ever be appropriate when there are so many vested parties who need hands-on access to the solution,” he suggests.

StreetDrone’s open taxonomy includes a range of autonomous vehicles, which are regarded by the company as an agnostic platform solution or ‘skateboard’ which can adopt any form factor — to transport goods or passengers as required and thereby extending the company’s philosophy of providing its trial customers with options rather than prescriptive solutions.

Streetdrone are autonomy experts in ‘zone 1’ restrictive urban environments

Importantly, however, with safety an absolute priority for autonomous vehicles in restricted urban environments, StreetDrone have again abandoned conventional wisdom and designed a clean sheet ‘driving robot’, or drive-by-wire technology rather than ‘hacking’ or spoofing the control systems of vehicles not originally designed with autonomy in mind. “Our commitment to safety for urban trials is our first principle and the only way that can be achieved is by purpose-led design, not reverse-engineering conventional vehicle controls. We have applied this principle to develop proprietary tools such as our own driving robot as an integral element of our growing platform fleet, including our latest Nissan people carrier platform which is spearheading our current trials work in central London,” Potts says.

Supporting the approach to open data and software, StreetDrone’s Software Strategy Engineer, Holly Watson Nall, sits on the Technical Steering Committee of the Autoware Foundation. The Autoware open-source software platform brings with it the combined muscle of Intel & Arm to Tata Consulting Services, Hitachi, LG and Nagoya & Saitama Universities among 39 other partners. In this kind of company, the open approach to next-gen mobility starts to argue its own case.

And the final element of the holistic open approach employed by StreetDrone is the shareability of data through open interface solutions. This provides those that commission trials not just with proof of concept or other forms of operational validation, but essential access to the underlying data generated by trials which are the foundation of a progressive and collaborative approach to delivering urban autonomy.

Autonomy Reimagined?

So does the open taxonomy proposed by StreetDrone offer greater certainties for the evolution of urban autonomy trials and ultimately fully commercial solutions for the consumer? It may not be a silver bullet, but the direction of travel that StreetDrone set out certainly obviate some of the roadblocks that the grand autonomy project has run into in the recent past.

What StreetDrone have effectively seized upon are a number of proven methodologies — from the accelerating capacity of open collaboration to the structured framework of a maturity model — and fused them into a coherent taxonomy that promises to put the mobility back into the grand autonomy project.

Who Are StreetDrone?

StreetDrone is led by CEO Mike Potts, formerly a senior business development executive with Expedia Europe and founder of Elisa Interactive Group, a digital optimisation solutions provider that was acquired by Havas Media in 2013. His business partner is Mark Preston, founder of Preston EV and a former Formula 1 engineer with race teams including McLaren. Mark is also the Team Principal of the DS Techeetah Formula E team, the reigning champions of the Formula E electric city-centre racing series.

Headquartered in Oxford, UK, the company is part of a growing cluster of businesses based in the university city that are spearheading the advancement of next-gen mobility technologies in Europe.

The company is currently managing active public road autonomy trials in central London and will launch their next autonomous vehicle, the StreetDrone e-NV200, in November.

Mike Potts joins a panel discussion at CAV Scotland in Glasgow on 13th & 14th of November and the company is exhibiting at CoMotion in Los Angeles on 14th & 15th November and Automobility LA between the 18th and 21st of November.

Deploy, Learn, Scale for Autonomy Customers

StreetDrone provides a full solution for cities, public and private mass transit businesses and urban delivery services seeking to run autonomous vehicle trials in extra-urban contexts to meet specific consumer demand.

The company’s three-stage maturity model employs a deploy, learn, scale approach to commercialising autonomy for trial clients.

StreetDrone provide a full-stack solution spanning proprietary ‘trial-ready’ hardware including vehicle platforms with open access drive-by-wire technology, self-driving software and open interfaces for integration into any application.

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