Back when I was writing for our sister publication, Automotive Purchasing and Supply Chain magazine, I always expected to bump into Westfield: a famous British motor racing company that has been respected by motoring enthusiasts around the world since its founder, Chris Smith, decided to design and build a replica of a 1956 Lotus XI Le Mans car. Unfortunately, we never crossed paths back then. However, I recently got the chance to speak to Julian Turner, the company's Managing Director, albeit in a completely different circumstance - this time, about autonomous pods.
Now, to an outsider, it may seem strange that Westfield is operating with electric autonomous vehicles, although it is not completely out-of-the-blue. The company has been involved in electric race cars since 2010, launching its IRacer at the Geneva Motor Show in 2010 before demonstrating its hybrid Sport Turbo at the Goodwood Festival of Speed. When Turner started at Westfield in 2006, the company was looking at European small series production and electric technology, before developing the IRacer as the world's first pure electric race car, which was extremely early for the time. Westfield embarked on the road towards electrification and autonomous technology, which led to the company manufacturing autonomous pods for Heathrow Airport in 2014. Turner tells me that Westfield got involved with Heathrow to replace the airport’s rail system with autonomous vehicles that could operate in pedestrian areas and the road surrounding it. It is the UK’s first fully autonomous vehicle system and has completed more miles than the Google Car programme in the US, having covered over five million kilometres of commercial service travel and carried over 3.5 million commercial passengers. Westfield also delivers more fully autonomous vehicles than anyone else in the UK.
The automotive industry is an extremely inefficient model, as many people who own their own vehicle only use it for a very small percentage of the day. Through innovations such as autonomous cars and mobility services, we will see a significant drop in private car ownership and inefficient transportation. Turner tells me that there has been a massive change to what we have been used to seeing in the automotive industry, but this is only the beginning. “There are bits that will evolve very quickly, such as car ownership, as we move over towards the aviation model where an OEM will supply a vehicle to a fleet operator who will own the car rather than private cars sitting still for 90% of the time,” he says. “This is terrible utilisation; if you look at the commercial aircraft industry, it operates at 98% efficiency, as costs exceed a thousand pounds a minute.” Once the automotive industry takes this approach, we will see less congestion and pollution almost instantly.
Focusing on an autonomous level, Turner predicts that we will start to use these vehicles through a pay as-you-drive service and in controlled environments as we are already seeing with Westfield. As well as in Greenwich, Westfield is also operating in South Korea, but Turner explains that it was a long process in order to source and operate in an appropriate area. “When we first looked at the use case in the country, we saw that there were so many variables that didn't make it ideal for the type of vehicle.” he says. “Because of this, we moved over to Ulleungdo Island where we were able to close down parts of it so that we could have pods operating without conventional cars driving around." This shows how important it is to create a suitable test area in order to create a safe environment that will increase the speed of development and efficiency in the autonomous space. This approach has been utilised around the world such as MCity in Michigan and, of course, the GATEway Project in Greenwich.
"It is all about matching the autonomous vehicles to the correct use case,” Turner continues. “It's pointless putting it right in the middle of the city centre because the vehicle will struggle to move anywhere as it tries to operate in an urban environment where there are a lot of variables.” To overcome this, you have two options: you either remove the autonomous vehicle from that area or create some form of segregation, such as signaling to pedestrians that there are autonomous vehicles driving through. “The best thing to help develop autonomous technology is to get rid of any issues that could confuse the vehicle as you test and then work from there, in order to accelerate the technology," adds Turner. For now, a lot of operators are present in the vehicle as it learns and develops, in order to take control in the case of an emergency. Fundamentally, automation is a process and we are not going to see this kind of technology operating freely on public roads for another decade, so it is important to establish designated testing areas and controlled environments for this innovation to thrive.
Private ownership has created an overwhelming burden on the world and we must look towards such innovations as ridesharing and controlled autonomous pods as long-term solutions. Some companies have already announced that they will be introducing robo taxis which will help bring us to the next stage of automation, but the industry needs to look at making life easier for consumers if they want this shift to be welcomed. “If we can remove cars from busy areas and replace them with a public transport pod system, it will totally transform that area and encourage more people to switch over from private car ownership,” says Turner. “We must make sure that the journey is more convenient by public transport than it is by car; by utilising EV car sharing services or autonomous systems in built up areas, we can completely revolutionise transportation.” This is the biggest change the automotive industry has ever seen and this is one of the answers to the problems we face today.
Turner believes that this will be a phased approach: “if we've got this new business model of only using a car when you need it, it will help phase out a lot of the conventional vehicles a lot quicker and reduce congestion through more carsharing.” This will allow cleaner and more efficient transportation in urban ecosystems - a top priority for cities around the world. Although cities such as London are looking to increase tax and congestion zone costs for older cars, making it difficult for private ownership, Turner thinks that there needs to be a smooth transition to this rather than annoying everybody, as it is important not to force mobility on people. “It is all about being convenient for people - if I could do something now that takes me half an hour less or allows me to work on the way to my destination, it's an absolute no-brainer. It makes my day a lot easier, making both my life and everyone else's more efficient,” he says. Through this ideology, companies like Westfield will continue to work in controlled environments to accelerate this technology being used and the acceptance of it. Unfortunately, although people voice their concerns about the environmental problems we face today, the majority will always choose convenience and accessibility first. It is all about getting from A to B in the quickest and easiest way possible, so this must be a driving factor when introducing autonomous vehicles into the mix.
From an environmental standpoint, London is in desperate need of reducing its emissions, recently reaching a red warning on its pollution levels. The city must adopt future mobility as quickly as possible, otherwise it is going to have a lot more serious problems. Turner believes that people are now waking up to the fact that there are increasing pollution levels and states that, by eliminating the burden of travel through new alternatives, we can help reduce these worrying figures. “The way to accelerate this change is by focusing on the best use cases in areas where people are travelling in a really inefficient way,” he says. “By replacing inefficient transport with these alternatives, we can help relieve congestion, reduce emissions and create a more convenient transport network.”
Now that we are starting to see autonomous vehicles in public, it is important for operators to establish standards and regulations that will help support the roll-out. The main issue that is stalling this is legislation, with nothing completely set in stone for this shift. Turner explains that it is important to make sure that these companies are not negligent, focusing on insurance and safety before operating in an unsafe manner. “We have helped insurance companies such as the RSA Insurance Group, which has been heavily involved in the Greenwich project, helping them learn about autonomous vehicles, their limitations and where the technology is in order to help write the legislation needed. There are a lot of cowboys out there that want to take stuff out and trial it without any safety and acceptance testing. We have tried to take the best knowledge from partners and ourselves and what we've learnt by integrating this all into a clearly structured safety case with authorities like the Vehicle Certification Agency," he says. "We are trying to work with the authorities as much as possible to inform them and keep them involved as we develop the software. We believe that we are pioneers with this and we hope to be the ones writing the regulations as we have done before."
Looking forwards, it is difficult to know exactly what will happen in the area of e-mobility and autonomous technology. Turner believes that the most obvious change over the next decade will come through car sharing, battery technology and connectivity. "I can imagine that I won't have a car sat on the drive and that we will have graphene supercapacitors or something similar powering vehicles,” he says. “I will be able to call a car using my phone or it will already know when I need to use it at a particular time. Once I get in, I will have in-vehicle connectivity on my way to my destination so that I can work. In terms of the infrastructure, I expect there to be no traffic lights, roundabouts or congestion.” In addition, he also envisions an incredibly efficient transport ecosystem that will cater for a range of different people. “Once the vehicle has dropped me at work, I imagine that it would then take someone's children to school around the corner from my destination, before going to somewhere like a shopping centre to pick up the next passenger and then moving goods for a company at night when there is less customer demand. I can imagine vehicles working 23 hours and 50 minutes of the day with flexible multimodal interiors so that they can transform into anything from my office to moving goods.” This seems like the ultimate outcome for future mobility, which many will welcome with open arms. Through EV technology advancing, using lighter and more efficient batteries, and with autonomous technology becoming a real life solution, we will soon see the extinction of the conventional vehicles we see on our roads today.