O2 R&D boss: driverless cars should not be like 'Big Brother'

Driverless cars might be packed with sensors that can track a passenger's exact location, but brands and government bodies must prioritise using this data for safety, rather than monitoring.

  • The fully driverless Meridian Shuttle in Greenwich

    The fully driverless Meridian Shuttle in Greenwich

  • The fully driverless Meridian Shuttle in Greenwich

    The fully driverless Meridian Shuttle in Greenwich

  • The fully driverless Meridian Shuttle in Greenwich

    The fully driverless Meridian Shuttle in Greenwich

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That’s according to O2’s head of R&D, Mike Short, who is overseeing the operator’s involvement in the UK’s first driverless car trials in Greenwich.

O2 is providing connectivity to Greenwich’s Meridian shuttle, a milk float-style vehicle that carries tourists between destinations without a driver. Short outlined how camera data from a driverless vehicle might be fed back to a central control room in case of an emergency.

This is about making driverless cars safe, not like Big Brother

Other driverless vehicles, such as Google’s, rely on a complex array of sensors to ensure they spot obstacles and brake in time.

Short said this tracking technology must always make passengers feel safe, rather than spied on.

He told Marketing: "During these trials, we have stewards on the driverless cars to help our research. But the real car would have no steward, and so it is vital to have a control room.

"This is about making driverless cars safe, not like Big Brother. Greenwich is about getting tourists from A to B more easily, and about how to use the roads more effectively without congestion."

Disruption

The Greenwich Gateway trial is also examining how driverless cars might disrupt existing business models, affecting sectors such as insurance, energy and retail. Shell and Royal Sun Alliance are also participating in the trial.

As connected cars become more prevalent, car insurance is already changing. Since high-tech cars are already packed with sensors, these can interact with a driver’s smartphone and pass on information about their driving distances to insurance companies – something O2 already does, said Short.

But if the driver is removed altogether, that radically alters how car insurance works, he added.

When you come to driverless cars, you are no longer insuring the driver, you’re insuring the asset, or the vehicle

He said: "When you come to driverless cars, you are no longer insuring the driver, you’re insuring the asset, or the vehicle. So you really need the trial to ask where the risks are.

"How risky is a driverless car? How do you minimise that risk before the passenger gets into the car?"

Driverless cars may also have a wider ripple effect beyond the automotive, insurance and fuel industries, particularly if the UK realises its wider vision of smart cities.

There is no single definition of a smart city, but the concept broadly involves local government investing cleverly in technology to ensure more efficient use of physical infrastructure, such as roads.

Anton Christodoulou, CTO EMEA at Imagination, works with a number of automotive brands such as Ford and Jaguar Land Rover, and was formerly part of BT’s early research into driverless cars.

He pointed out that clever integration of autonomous vehicles into smart cities could reduce costs to councils as well as private businesses.

He said: "If you can move certain waste management vehicles around, because you know where all the other vehicles are, that allows your service to function in a more efficient way."

That could extend to any business reliant on logistics, such as retailers and grocery deliveries, or broadband firms tracking the location of their engineers.

Christodoulou said: "Controlling complexity in real time is incredibly powerful, not just in terms of cost savings, but in providing additional safety."

Roadblocks to driverless cars

Short said that public attitudes towards driverless cars, rather than technical challenges, would prove the biggest barrier to mainstream adoption.

He said: "We could see driverless cars on roads quite a way before 2030, but only if public acceptability is there, and if trust is built up. The [Greenwich] trial is about gathering evidence to prove these vehicles are safe and not risky."

We could see driverless cars on roads quite a way before 2030, but only if public acceptability is there

He added: "O2 wouldn’t want to this if we did not see there was more convenience for the public."

Though a number of sectors will be affected by the technology, Short added that the burden of marketing driverless cars to the public lay with car makers and the government.

He said: "It has to be multi-player – the government is responsible for what is on the public roads, and car manufacturers. Whoever the car manufacturer of the day is will need to use their brand to raise public trust and confidence."


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