Once a pipe dream, self-driving cars now seem likely to become a fixture of Britain’s roads in the not-too-distant future. The likes of Uber and Google have ploughed hundreds of millions of dollars into the technology (Apple is rumoured to be doing the same) and most of the big car manufacturers have followed suit. But why go to Silicon Valley or Stuttgart to find companies bringing autonomous vehicles to market when you need only go as far as Coventry?
Last week RDM Group debuted its fully autonomous ‘Pod Zero’ at the Cenex Low Carbon Vehicle Event at Millbrook proving ground, making it the first British company to do so in public. The pods can accommodate two, four or six people and have an operational range of 60 miles but they’re not designed for use on the road.
Instead they will be used to carry people at a maximum speed of 15mph through pedestrianised areas like airports, university campuses and shopping centres. They would certainly make visiting somewhere like London’s Oxford Street, set to be closed to traffic by 2020, less daunting for the elderly and infirm.
RDM is the creation of David Keene, who took voluntary redundancy in 1993 after 11 years working for Rover. It’s a ‘tier 1’ supplier of car parts to the likes of Jaguar Land Rover, Aston Martin and Bentley and employs 65 people, with a turnover approaching £9m. ‘I initially worked out of my little bedroom at home in Coventry,’ Keene tells MT. ‘Over the years I’ve acquired 50,000 square feet of manufacturing, design, development and vehicle build space.’ Keene also owns Leacy MG, a supplier of parts for MGs, Triumphs, Minis and Morris Minors that employs another 38, and several other small automotive companies.
The company got into autonomous vehicles in a gradual way. After designing a connected car that could be controlled using an iPad for a client it had the know-how to build ‘fly by wire’ systems – allowing steering, braking and other mechanical parts of the car to be controlled digitally.
‘Then one day a UK/European call came out from the Transport Systems Catapult, based in Milton Keynes, saying we want this tender for building three autonomous vehicles,’ says Keene. ‘At that point we didn’t need to supply the autonomous control system, we just needed to build the vehicle and the interface - the self-steer, self-braking, that sort of stuff.’ RDM built three LUTZ (low-carbon urban transport zone) Pathfinder pod along with Oxford University’s Mobile Robotics Group, which supplied the autonomous control system.
After that RDM joined a consortium focusing on self-driving cars called UK Autodrive alongside the likes of Ford, JLR and Tata Motors. It successfully bid for £20m worth of government funding and now the company is planning to build 40 more pods. ‘But this time I decided that RDM is going to do its own autonomous control system.’
That’s involved hiring a bunch of new team members to build the software, something that’s been a big challenge thus far. ‘It’s got harder over the past few years because of the success of the economy, especially in automotive,’ says Keene. ‘We’ve got Jaguar Land Rover as our neighbours, which is great because they’re one of our biggest customers. But they’ve been doing spectacularly well and every time they expand they need more people so the pool of really first class people gets smaller and smaller.’
The trick is highlighting the benefits of working for a small company, he adds. ‘Some of those are the variety of the work, the excitement of the work, we’re a smaller team, you’re connected to the owner, if we want to make a decision we make it instantly.’ Being one of the few companies in the UK developing autonomous cars probably helps too.
Though it’s focused on low-speed vehicles for now, there’s a possibility RDM’s autonomous tech could find its way into your road car in the future. ‘Our first objective is to make sure all of our technology works and is robust and we get into production making the pod vehicles,’ says Keene. ‘We’ve got the technology to provide systems for road-going cars so I guess we would probably licence our technology in the future.’
For now the company is planning to make 200 pods next year and bidding for contracts the world over, from America to Singapore and the Middle East. Keene says autonomous vehicles are unlikely to supplant the company’s core parts business but they certainly seem to be taking off. ‘There’s still many years ahead of us producing top quality products for car manufacturers but as time moves on companies like us having this kind of technology can only be a good thing.’