Zenzic Maps Out Road to Autonomous Vehicles

UK body leads collaborative effort across sectors

Zenzic was formed in the UK in early 2018 as an organization funded half by the government’s Centre for Connected and Autonomous Vehicles and half by industry, with 28 companies contributing to the overall initial £200 million raised. It helps to fund six test beds in central and southern England that enable members to work on various aspects of autonomous vehicles including data, parking, rural driving, highways, urban driving, connectivity, real-world environments and digital twins. Each site is run by a consortium of suppliers involved in different parts of the transportation industry. Alongside Zenzic’s work, there are more than 80 projects and trials underway in the UK to test several aspects of autonomous vehicles.

One of the main difficulties with the move to self-driving vehicles is the large number of stakeholders involved and the need for co-ordinated progress between them. These include government for regulations and road infrastructure; telecom suppliers for connectivity; vehicle manufacturers; cloud and technology players for artificial intelligence, data and cybersecurity; mapping companies; insurance companies; academia for ethics, artificial intelligence and human factors; service providers that depend on road transport such as hauliers and bus companies; and, of course, society.

So far, much of the pioneering work in automated driving has been led by car manufacturers, with help from big cloud players and chipset providers. There’s a clear need to broaden this out so that progress doesn’t get held up by one area not being ready because it wasn’t involved at an early enough stage.

To create a shared vision across these groups and form a collective view of the work needed to realize the vision, Zenzic combined strategies from 13 different areas and ran a series of workshops involving 150 organizations. In an aptly named “road map” publication, Zenzic outlines the fruit of this large exercise: a single 10-year plan that, for the first time, spans the many different fields involved and includes milestones and dependencies between the areas. Zenzic launched its road map on 3 September 2019 and aims to keep it as a living document, refreshing it each year as developments unfold.

The road map has four themes, covering society and people, vehicles, infrastructure and services, each with its own tracks, such as ergonomics and design, connectivity, type approvals, insurance, freight and logistics. It’s available as a report and as an online interactive page.

At a time when the UK’s reputation is suffering as it struggles to deal with Brexit, it’s refreshing to see a well-coordinated effort like this. The approach is attracting the attention of other countries, and there’s a significant opportunity to build it out on a much broader geographic scale. Already 25% of the project’s funding comes from outside the UK.

According to Daniel Ruiz, CEO of Zenzic, interest from the UK in taking such a leading stance in the area comes partly from the potential economic benefits that autonomous vehicles could bring to the country’s economy, and partly from the UK being a world leader in automotive and transportation technology. There’s clearly a large export opportunity opening up for home-grown companies if this work goes well.

But the initiative does raise some big questions, which will apply in most countries as they also look to support autonomous vehicles.

  1. Funding. The initial £200 million is a great start, but it won’t be enough to run this work for the whole 10-year horizon. The good news is that, in a climate of some political upheaval, politicians across the spectrum see the benefits of the work and are expected to want to keep the UK at the forefront of the area. Future funding is likely to continue to need a mixture of government and industry commitment.
  2. Government. Another important question is deciding what mix of national and local government involvement is appropriate. At present, local governments have responsibility for local roads, and many are struggling to meet their budgets, so why would they give this area high priority when other issues might win more votes? There’s a co-ordination programme being run by the Department for Transport to manage this.
  3. Geographic reach. Some of the most interesting smart city work is being done by Alibaba in China, but the company isn’t currently a partner in the Zenzic project. If the collaboration work aspires to build best-of-breed systems, it may need systematic scanning and outreach to ensure it includes the most interesting players.
  4. Societal attitudes. These are widely seen as the most challenging aspect to get right. Zenzic is starting in this area with a short information film and a campaign to dig more deeply into the objections of those who are most vocal in their opposition to autonomous driving. There’s clearly a long way to go with this and it will need sustained work from the whole ecosystem to get it right.
  5. Implementation. The UK has a good reputation for its institutions and players working collaboratively in the early phases of a new technology. However, it has a poor track record recently for large-scale implementation of high technology projects, with the National Health Service’s Care.data scheme and the smart meter programme as prime examples that didn’t go well.

As autonomous vehicles move out of the research phase over the next couple of years, Zenzic and its partners will need to show that they have a plan for successful national implementation. This will be needed to convince the public, who are increasingly disaffected with politicians, and a political group that will need to drive the project. The comprehensive road map is a good starting point.