The 4 Ws of universal autonomy: What, why, when and where


Originally posted for Oxbotica

What is universal autonomy?

If a vehicle is autonomous, it knows where it is, what’s around it and what it should do. Universal autonomy means doing that in all places, at all times, for all vehicles.

From the beginning, universal autonomy was always our goal. We never set out to restrict ourselves to a specific domain – we wanted to build software that could enable any vehicle to operate unassisted by human beings, anywhere, anytime.

Autonomy is one of the toughest problems of our times. Though it’s tempting to go for a specialised approach that focuses on just one domain, we think that means building in unnecessary and expensive limitations. Imagine you’re building a processor: why would you develop a processor that could only work inside one specific device, like a printer, when you could build one for general-purpose computing? That would be daft. The same applies to autonomy software.

There is a common skillset across all types of driving in all places. Driving a mining truck or a shuttle in an airport does require some specialist domain knowledge around rights of way and the rules of the road. However, it is the fundamental underlying technology competency set – the where, the what and the how – that is the common factor. If we ourselves drive universally, then surely the technology behind our vehicles should also be universal? That’s not to say it’s easy, though. Our advantage is our heritage – we have been working on the fundamentals of autonomy since 1996 across different industries and locations. The how of universal autonomy is a complicated business that transcends simple explanations. Yet, the concept of universal autonomy is simplicity itself.

Why do we need universal autonomy?

That’s easy to answer. Every industry is set to benefit from the spoils that autonomy offers, but not always in the same way or mix. Some see the economic benefit – doing things faster at less cost and for longer. Others see safety and superhuman precision as the key benefits. Many industries will be born because of it. Across the board, vehicles will do more. In fact, we have made “Let all vehicles do more” our rallying call.

But here is the thing – if we can supercharge vehicles’ abilities across multiple sectors with a common product, and the use of that product in each domain improves the product day-to-day, then there is universal gain. Something extraordinary is going to happen.

When will universal autonomy be deployable?

Universal autonomy is ready to deploy now. Oxbotica have the core technology that allows us to deploy autonomy at any time, in any environment. Over the past five years, we’ve deployed our software with our industry partners, in taxis, to give one example, but also in mines, forests, warehouses, ports and airports. Different vehicles, different places, different markets, but the same code.

Each sector will have its own rewards and challenges as it adopts or is transformed by autonomy. These, of course, have a part to play in timing. Regulators and insurers are both enablers and catalysts; they have an important role to play as partner stakeholders in this journey. Certainly, regulators in the UK have been faultless in their support and strategy over these past five years. We see the insurance industry as a critical component in the delivery of universal autonomy. We partnered four years ago with AXA XL to develop the insurance axis of universal autonomy. Specifically, we wanted to answer how it can be used to reduce risk and bring insured autonomy to many sectors at once, universally.

Where will universal autonomy be deployed?

Universal autonomy has the potential to disrupt, lift and energise innumerable markets worldwide. The possibilities are limitless. But you have to start somewhere. As a business, we’ve chosen exactly how to sequence our options and what our deployment priorities are.

Working with our industry partners, we are prioritising the markets where we can offer immediate value in terms of safety and efficiency with our proven technology. The beauty of it all is that our software continually learns. Developing universal autonomy means that the learnings our technology picks up from a deployment in one market can be applied to all other markets where the software operates. As we work in our immediate markets, we are continually strengthening our technical offering for our future markets.

There is simply no reason why every vehicle shouldn’t be autonomous. All vehicles should do more, universally. That’s universal autonomy – and we make it.