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Driverless cars on UK roads by 2021 – really?

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Remember the days when the Budget was secret and anybody who leaked it got fired?

Well, nowadays much of it gets dribbled out days in advance and over the weekend there was an eye-catching leak – or rather Treasury press release – about new money for technology.

The most striking element of a package which included £75m for artificial intelligence research, £160m for new 5G mobile phone networks and £100m to train more computer science teachers, was the Chancellor’s plan to bring driverless cars to our roads.

It was not the fact that he saw this as a vital technology where the UK could be a leader which surprised me – we have plenty of groundbreaking research under way – but the timescale for this autonomous driving future.

The government is promising “bold reforms” to encourage a driverless car industry which its press release says “will be worth £28bn to the UK economy by 2035”.

A startling figure in itself but then there is this:

“These measures will help realise the Chancellor’s vision that fully self-driving cars will be on UK roads in as little as three years.”

Surely that’s a stretch, I thought, if by fully self-driving they mean cars with nobody behind the wheel to take over? Wouldn’t that mean radical changes to the rules of the road which currently insist that an alert and sober human has to be in charge of a vehicle at all times?

Image copyright Getty Images

I put this to the Treasury and an email came winging back with this line in block capitals:


The message went on to explain that an amendment to the Road Traffic Act would indeed be needed under which the Secretary of State for Transport would allow individual manufacturers to take their cars onto the road without a human operator, but only after they had proved they were safe.

It seems unlikely to me that just three years from now, the technology will have advanced far enough, or any secretary of state will be brave enough to allow a fully driverless car to operate on any but the quietest of roads.

But I spoke to someone who’s worked in both government and the autonomous vehicle sector to get a view of how likely we are to see full autonomy by 2021.

Until recently, Lucy Yu worked in the government unit responsible for driverless car regulation. She’s now director of public policy for FiveAI, a British company building software for autonomous vehicles.

FiveAI is leading a consortium aiming to put driverless cars on the roads in London in 2019, though they will still have a driver behind the wheel at that stage.

She says getting to full autonomy will involve a lot of testing not just on private roads but in computer simulations: “We will need to test all the edge cases,” she explains. “Different scenarios when it’s dark or rubbish blows across the road. For that we can’t use the real world as a sandbox.”

Then at some stage FiveAI hopes to take its vehicle to the roads unaccompanied by a driver.

There are plenty of manufacturers claiming they have vehicles with high levels of autonomy, but at the moment they all still need the driver to take over in some circumstances.

Image caption Jaguar Land Rover has been testing driverless cars on public roads

I’ve always thought this sounded unsatisfactory – drivers who have been able to take their hands off the wheel for 20 minutes may not be well prepared to take control when the unexpected happens.

Lucy Yu agrees – FiveAI’s plan, when it eventually offers a service to the public, is to go straight to full autonomy without intervening steps. But will that happen on the timescale envisioned by the Chancellor?

“By 2021 we expect our technology to be able to operate without a human driver,” she says, although she makes it clear that would be under a quite limited set of circumstances, depending on weather conditions, type of road and time of day.

But she goes on to say: “We plan to operate our early services still with remote supervision to provide an extra layer of review of general driving conditions and to add to consumer confidence.”

I’m taking that to mean no, the public won’t be ready by 2021 to see a car with nobody at the wheel cruising past. Getting the technology right is one thing, sorting out everything else could be messy.

Later on Monday, the Chancellor will get a first-hand view of the progress towards full autonomy.

He is due to get a ride in a driverless car in the West Midlands – and already the political sketchwriters are rubbing their hands with glee at the metaphorical potential this provides.

Nobody seems to get sacked for leaking the Budget any more – but whoever dreamed up this photo opportunity may be nervous about their career prospects.

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Hammond to pledge 300,000 homes a year

“It is not acceptable to us that so many fewer young Britons are able to own a home”

Philip Hammond says next week’s Budget will set out how the government will build 300,000 new homes a year.

But the chancellor said there was no “single magic bullet” to increase housing supply and the government would not simply “pour money in”.

Ministers want to speed up developments where planning permission has been granted and give more help to small building firms, he added.

Labour says ministers “still have no plan to fix the housing crisis”.

Speaking on the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show ahead of Wednesday’s Budget, the chancellor also said:

  • “There are no unemployed people” while discussing the threat to jobs posed by technological change – when pressed later, he said the government hadn’t forgotten the 1.4m who are unemployed
  • The government was “on the brink” of making “some serious movement forward” in the Brexit negotiations
  • Ministers would not withdraw a controversial bid to enshrine the exact Brexit date in law
  • The health service will not face “Armageddon” if it is not given a £4bn funding boost demanded by the boss of NHS England

The shortage of housing is expected to be one of the themes of the Budget, with Mr Hammond under pressure to ease the difficulties faced by first-time buyers trying to get a deposit.

He said it was “not acceptable” that young people find it so hard to buy a home, and promised to set out how the government would keep its “pledge to the next generation”.

He did not commit to the £50bn reportedly being demanded by Communities Secretary Sajid Javid to finance a house-building drive, but committed to the target of 300,000 new homes in England.

He insisted the government was delivering new homes at record levels, with 217,350 “additional dwellings” in England last year, but acknowledged more needed to be done.

Focusing on sites where planning permission has been granted, he said the government would use the “powers of state” to get “missing homes built”.

It also plans to pay to clean up polluted industrial sites for house building, get town hall bosses to allocate small pockets of land to small developers and guarantee loans by banks to small house builders.

“There are no unemployed people. We’ve created 3.5 million new jobs since 2010.”

The chancellor’s Budget speech is also expected to include:

  • £75m for artificial intelligence
  • £400m for electric car charge points
  • £100m to boost clean car purchases
  • £160m for next-generation 5G mobile networks across the UK
  • £100m for an additional 8,000 fully-qualified computer science teachers supported by a new National Centre for Computing
  • A retraining partnership between the TUC (Trade Union Congress), CBI (Confederation of British Industry) and the government
  • £76m to boost digital and construction skills
Image caption The government wants to improve access to finance for businesses to build electric car charge points

The chancellor is also expected to announce regulation changes to allow developers to apply to test driverless vehicles – and revealed he would be testing one out in the West Midlands on Monday.

The government is aiming for fully driverless cars – with no safety attendant on board – to be on the road in four years.

“Some would say that’s a bold move but I believe we have to embrace these technologies, we have to take up these challenges, if we want to see Britain leading the next industrial revolution,” Mr Hammond added.

Challenged on the impact of wider automation on people’s jobs, he went on to say: “I remember 20 years ago we were worrying about what was going to happen to the million shorthand typists in Britain as the personal computer took over.

“Well nobody has a shorthand typist these days, but where are all these unemployed people?

“There are no unemployed people.”

Asked to clarify his remark later in the interview, he said the government was “getting people into work at a remarkable rate” and that it had not forgotten the 1.4m unemployed people in the UK.

In a later interview with ITV’s Peston, he said: “The point I was making is previous waves of technological change have not resulted in millions of people being long-term unemployed.”

Also appearing on Marr, Labour shadow chancellor John McDonnell defended his own plans to borrow £250bn over 10 years to invest in capital projects and renationalise several key industries, saying his proposals would allow the UK to “compete in a global market”.

“When you invest those sums you get a return on that investment that covers any cost of borrowing,” he said.

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Apple acquired augmented reality headset startup Vrvana for $30M

As Apple reportedly ramps up work to ship an augmented reality headset in 2020, it has acquired a startup from Montreal, Canada that could help it get there. TechCrunch has learned that Apple has acquired Vrvana, maker of the Totem headset — which had rave reviews but never shipped. The deal was for around $30 million, two sources tell TechCrunch.

We contacted Apple, and the company declined to comment, but also did not deny the story. Vrvana did not reply to our request for comment. Sources close to the deal have confirmed the acquisition to us.

The deal is significant because while we have seen reports and rumors about Apple’s interest in AR hardware, the company has been very tight-lipped and generally is very secretive about completely new, future products. This acquisition is perhaps the clearest indicator yet of what the company is hoping to develop.

A number of the startup’s employees have joined Apple in California. The Vrvana site is currently still up, but it stopped updating social accounts and news in August of this year.

It’s not clear what of Vrvana’s existing products, product roadmap or current business — it worked with Valve, Tesla, Audi and others under NDA — will be making its way to Apple.

The only product that Vrvana shows off on its site is the unreleased Totem headset, an “extended reality” device utilizing key technologies from both AR and virtual reality to allow for both experiences on a single headset.

A screen grab from one of Vrvana’s promotional videos for the Totem.

The tethered device had a form factor similar to many of today’s VR headsets, but uniquely relied on several forward-facing pass-through cameras to replicate the outside world on its OLED displays inside the headset. The system of cameras enabled 6DoF tracking, a technology which allows the device to track its position in 3D space, while also using infrared cameras to track a user’s hands.

Vrvana’s camera-based AR approach differs from competitors like Microsoft, which is utilizing transparent, projection-based displays for its HoloLens headset. The Totem holds a number of advantages over these systems, most notably in that it is able to overlay fully opaque, true-color animations on top of the real world rather than the ghost-like projections of other headsets which critically cannot display the color black. This allows the headset to do what it calls “seamless blend” transitions between VR and AR environments.

A key disadvantage in these types of systems, aside from bulky aesthetics, is that there is often noticeable lag between the cameras capturing the outside world and how quickly it is displayed in-headset. Vrvana CEO Bertrand Nepveu detailed this problem in a talk this summer where he shared that the startup had working prototypes that brought this latency down to 3 milliseconds.

An animation showcasing how the Totem smoothly transitions between AR and VR modes.

There are consumer applications for this kind of “extended reality” technology — for example, in games and other entertainment — but one key focus for Vrvana was enterprise usage.

“Totem’s hand tracking and inside-out positional tracking empowers your workforce to manipulate virtual objects with their hands wherever they please,” the company said in promotional materials on the headset.

This is notable considering Apple’s focus — both on its own and in partnership with other IT providers like IBM, Cisco and SAP — to court different enterprise verticals. In August, CEO Tim Cook singled out enterprise as one key focus for its AR ambitions, and in its last earnings the company reported double-digit growth in the area. The company last broke out its enterprise sales back in 2015, when Cook described it as a $25 billion business.

But scaling remains one of the hardest things for startups — especially hardware startups — to do, and this is even more the case for startups working in emerging technologies that have yet to break into the mainstream.

Founded back in 2005, Vrvana had not disclosed much of its funding. A source tells TechCrunch the company raised less than $2 million, a modest figure in the world of hardware. Investors according to PitchBook included Real Ventures (whose partner Jean-Sebastian Cournoyer is also involved with, an ambitious AI startup and incubator in Montreal), the Canadian Technology Accelerator, and angel Richard Adler, who is also active in other VR startups.

Up to now, Apple has been fairly critical of the state of VR and AR hardware in the market today, and it has downplayed its own hand in the game.

“Today I can tell you the technology itself doesn’t exist to do that in a quality way. The display technology required, as well as putting enough stuff around your face – there’s huge challenges with that,” Cook told The Independent in answer to a question about whether it was building a headset. “The field of view, the quality of the display itself, it’s not there yet…We don’t give a rat’s about being first, we want to be the best, and give people a great experience. But now anything you would see on the market any time soon would not be something any of us would be satisfied with. Nor do I think the vast majority of people would be satisfied.”

That’s not to say that Apple has not been enthusiastic about the augmented reality space. But to date, this interest has largely manifested itself through software — specifically the company’s iOS-based ARKit SDK — and the increasingly sophisticated camera arrays on the iPhone rather than through a dedicated device, although there have been plenty of Apple patents that also potentially point to one.

Apple also has made other acquisitions that underscore its interest in developing the technology that powers the hardware. In June, Apple acquired SMI, an eye-tracking firm that was working on solutions for VR and AR headsets. Other AR and VR-related acquisitions have included Flyby MediametaioEmotient, and Faceshift.

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