Laying the foundations

Following the company’s first birthday, Meridian CEO Daniel Ruiz speaks to Alex Kreetzer about how the UK can become a leader in connected technologies. 

The mobility space is so diverse, with an overwhelming industry need for a conductor to help control an orchestra of technology-driven companies. Many countries are now committing to a certain agenda, although there aren't many that have established the same roster of organisations that the UK has introduced in order to facilitate, coordinate and signpost future developments in the field of mobility. The UK government has answered the industry’s call for investment to help the development of connected and autonomous vehicles, committing over half a billion pounds through the Automotive Council. Following this incredibly important investment, the industry and government agreed to create a joint-establishment to address this development, which we now know as Meridian. 

A year after the brand’s official launch, I speak to Daniel Ruiz, Meridian’s CEO, who explains just how important this decision has been for the UK. “The government committed its interest in this agenda, by putting together the Centre for Connected and Autonomous Vehicles (CCAV), which is a very unusual action. This is partly made up from the Department of Transport and the Department of Business,” he says. “This wraps up the industrial strategy but is a commitment from the government which expresses their vision to put business and transport together to achieve social and economic impact.” In short, the CCAV is the focal point for the government, whilst Meridian is the focal point for the industry and the implementation of government policy. 

Yin and Yang

There’s no surprise that the government is now identifying this mobility revolution, with emerging technology changing the perception of transportation through new possibilities that simply weren’t possible before. We are already seeing a ripple effect across the industry, with traditional companies starting to focus on mobility solutions, from ridesharing and electrification to connected services and autonomous technology. "Meridian is the door-opener and has to be unique to fulfil its role," says Ruiz. "It must not be in competition with anybody else because, as soon as it is in competition, it ceases to fulfil its role as a conductor." Manufacturers and their supply chain are having to rethink how they deliver their products and more of them are thinking about services. They are having to rethink because their traditional processes are too long to accommodate the technological changes that are coming in. 

Nevertheless, says Ruiz, they still have the expertise in certain areas that the newer players cannot achieve. "We are already seeing this with newer companies such as Tesla, who are having problems with the production of the vehicle body. There is an interesting playoff in this area, which will drive the traditional automotive market to become more agile, whilst the emerging market is having to learn new skills. Both sides of the newly-formed industry will play to their strengths and coexist." The more innovative companies are able to operate faster, especially with new technologies, forcing larger companies to make the transition into the new world of transportation. However, as Ruiz mentions, these newer companies do not necessarily have the manufacturing expertise. “It is all about channelling a company's strengths and then finding the right partnership to help bring an idea to market the quickest,” he adds.

From a traditional automaker’s perspective, fleet companies are going to play a bigger role in mobility as OEMs will start to sell a lot more vehicles to them, rather than individual buyers, which marks a shift that is associated with the future transport market. The change in the diversity of transport means that consumers are no longer using one mode to get where they are going, which has birthed new ways of accessing mobility; most notably, ridesharing and carsharing services. “People now have applications that show their entire journey, from start to finish,” says Ruiz. “Mobility is about your complete journey, not just how you get from A to B. And it is at these interchanges where we will start to see the emergence of autonomous vehicles which will help bridge the gaps between, say, the bus and train.” 

From the test bed to the street
Daniel Ruiz

Daniel Ruiz

We are some way off a completely autonomous world, with many challenges to face ahead. Although the software itself may be available, there is so much more connected infrastructure needed to support a full-scale operation. The UK has multiple sites where self-driving vehicles are being tested, from Navya vehicles operating in Heathrow airport to Westfield's pods transporting the public around an area of Greenwich, showing the different approaches companies are taking. However, it is fairly obvious that you cannot dump autonomous vehicles into built-up areas such as central London and expect to be successful. Ruiz explains that Meridian's job is to scope a roadmap of these autonomous vehicles. "The fact that we have four urban test beds in London, the West Midlands and across the Milton Keynes-Oxford band shows that we have already taken the first major steps. We are in the process of evaluating bids to enhance urban development environments with highways, rural spaces and parking testing." Through this, the UK will become a comprehensive test bed that, within a two hours drive, you can experience totally different environments, which puts the UK in a unique position.

Meridian is also looking at how the industry can generate data from these environments, as the information doesn't progress into intelligence that can aid development at present. "This will be done through an open marketplace for data sharing which will be completed over the next nine months," adds Ruiz. "We need to create a shop window so that people can see from the outside what is going on in the UK and invite others to be a part of this spotlight." Fundamentally, this is about social and economic impact benefit to the UK. By bringing together interested parties, the market can begin to flow and benefit from this kind of collaboration.

The process

It is fairly obvious that we will not see this change overnight; for the industry to understand the complete process of this, it is important for Meridian to communicate what is going on. Everyone involved must understand that it will take a long time to see the ‘end result’ to infrastructure, safety and the general deployment of autonomous technology. “This means that we will not see traffic control systems disappear in the next five to ten years. If you think about the rate of uptake of connected technology, then conventional infrastructure will still be required for a long time yet," predicts Ruiz. This rollout is a process and we cannot expect to have every conventional vehicle taken off of the road the second that these autonomous vehicles become widely available.

However, this does pose a problem, as we are already seeing some self-driving vehicles involved in collisions with human drivers. This doesn’t necessarily put the spotlight on autonomous software, but drivers who do not completely understand the technology. This is one of the things that Ruiz is most concerned about. "People are jumping in and out of different vehicles without necessarily understanding how each works. Whether is it subtly or crucially different from any other vehicle they have previously got in to, this represents great danger. That said, connectivity and recognition of the risk mean that automotive manufacturers should communicate more effectively to customers.” Consumers need to understand that vehicles with level two automation cannot drive completely autonomously. This will change in time - due to prosecutions and media coverage - as the message spreads and people start to understand each characteristic. "People should be trained before they set off in a machine which can potentially kill. Maybe we need to even look at refreshers on driving licences to make sure that consumers appreciate these risks,” warns Ruiz.

Moving forward, cybersecurity is another factor which presents a significant risk. Ruiz explains that is it the utmost importance to address cybersecurity as soon as possible. "Meridian has an agreement with the British Standards Institute, to develop a series of publically accessible standards (PAS)," he says. "Unlike international cybersecurity standards which take months to pass, these are far easier to organise. We are instituting a programme where we will produce up to a dozen PAS aimed at cybersecurity and future connectivity because these are urgent issues that we need to address." The work on cybersecurity is being managed well, but the industry needs to be more conscious about how it communicates it, reducing the smoke and mirrors around the topic. "We have to maintain public trust because, as we are developing in a safe manner and making sure that we do not push past a safe limit. Otherwise, we will end up with a problem where no one will use any service." 

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