The man leading the self-driving technology charge
Heading it up is the firm’s CEO and co-owner, David Keene, who is – to emphasise the above point – also entitled to call himself Professor David Keene, BSc (electronics and electrical engineering), MIET, CEng and FRSA. “We’re on a journey with autonomy but I think our success to date is the result of being realistic and unrelenting,” says Keene, surveying the first, two-seat autonomous prototype the firm built – without even any suspension – six years ago.
“We aren’t looking to take on JLR or GM and get 50 million self-driving cars on the road; we’re looking to develop advanced systems that achieve enough to be sold to customers.”
So it is that the firm has trials running in Australia, moving old people around a gated community to give them mobility where otherwise they would struggle. There’s also a project at Heathrow’s Terminal 5, with an autonomous baggage dolly taking luggage crates to and from planes. By operating in environments that are easily mapped and where the risks can be contained, the possibilities of using, rather than talking about, autonomous vehicles open up. It’s a popular formula – other projects are running in Canada, Finland, Singapore, the US and Vietnam.
“Our approach – backed and boosted by investment from various initiatives such as Innovate UK and CCAV – has always been to build our expertise in a modular way,” says Keene. “In the same way you don’t try to teach a one-year-old to run, we have always focused on building our understanding and applying it step by step according to the ways we can imagine our work being employed in the real world.
“The airport scenario is very interesting. If you look into the number of baggage trucks running around and the issues they have with lost bags, time management and even damage from hitting things, then we can provide a solution. Certainly airports and airlines are keen to talk to us, and we see a great business in that in a way that an OEM looking to sell hundreds of thousands of cars may not.”
Keene lists other possible outlets, from university campuses, hospitals and theme parks to communities for injured ex-servicemen or old people. Another example of that is being assembled just around the corner along the way. Through RDM, Keene has worked with manufacturers including Aston Martin, Bentley, JLR, Mazda, McLaren, Mitsubishi, Morgan and Volkswagen over the years and understands the need to keep some projects secret, but he’s happy to show us – if not let us photograph – the next evolution of the firm’s autonomous revolution: a 12-seat bus that is being assembled and which will initially run in protected busways around the UK.
“The idea is that we trial it in Cambridgeshire overnight – in a restricted bus lane and when there are fewer pedestrians, cyclists and hazards in the way – and build our understanding,” he says. “I don’t expect there to be fully autonomous cars on our roads in a major way in my lifetime, but what we’ve proved is that there are numerous situations where they can operate and make life better. Our goal is to make them a reality.”