Will remote controlled cars like this kill off cabbies? ROBERT HARDMAN is the first to try a British innovation that makes Uber look like a relic from the steam age…
Right now, pootling along at jogging speed, this looks more like an episode of Mr Bean than a transport revolution fast coming down the track.
But here, in a huge Milton Keynes car park, I am sitting in a prototype of something which could be about to do to Uber and its ilk what Uber did to the taxi trade.
In short, you summon a taxi with no earache from the cabbie because there isn’t one. You drive it yourself for a fraction of the price.
Called Fetch, it’s a simple idea involving some very clever technology. Think of it as a cross between a taxi, a hire car and a drone.
It works like this. When you want to get somewhere fast, you don’t jump in your own car or summon a cab or an Uber.
You tap an app on your phone and an empty electric car turns up wherever you happen to be, driven to you by a driver operating the thing remotely from a call centre.
You then hop in and drive yourself wherever you want to go. And when you have arrived, you simply abandon the vehicle and another remote driver will simply drive it back to the nearest base or on to another customer.
It’s not only efficient, but it’s about as Covid-compliant as you can get.
For now, it is at the prototype phase, using electric bubble cars on a huge parking lot next to the MK Dons football stadium.
But this is not a case of boffins tinkering with experimental pie-in-the-sky stuff. It already has government backing, local authority backing and, in two months, Fetch will be taking to public roads in part of Milton Keynes.
By the end of this year, there should be a fleet of ten conventional-looking, remote-controlled family saloons — most of which will be Kia Niros — operating here.
The authorities have granted the company a trial permit to operate inside city limits (recognising the remote driver as the responsible driver) and Milton Keynes council will issue Fetch with a taxi licence from March.
In a huge Milton Keynes car park, I am sitting in a prototype of something which could be about to do to Uber and its ilk what Uber did to the taxi trade
Within two years, the scheme is expected to cover the entire town and then Fetch operations will begin in London and at certain airports. Whereupon the days of the airport car park may be numbered.
For if it is cheaper and easier to hail an empty hire car when you want to catch a plane, why would you go to the trouble and expense of taking your own vehicle to one of those wasteland car parks miles from the terminal?
Beyond that, if this really does take off, we could be looking at a transformation of public transport.
This is also a reminder that, however much we may hear that post-Brexit Britain is an irredeemably useless basket case, the UK is actually at the forefront of major global breakthroughs. For this entire project actually started life in Berlin.
Then the founders and the backers of Imperium Drive, the company behind Fetch, decided to move the whole thing to the UK.
A couple of offices at the back of a football ground opposite a KFC may not seem the most glamorous surrounds, but the Fetch team are very happy.
‘We moved to Britain for two reasons,’ says Koosha Kaveh, Imperium Drive’s chief executive.
‘First, this country has the best access to financial capital for start-ups. And it’s also the easiest place for regulation. If we were doing this in Germany or the U.S. or China, it would involve more rules, more licences and more costs.’
Readers may recall the Mail first reporting on this scheme earlier this year. Now, it is time to see the thing for real and in action.
I am one of the first ordinary punters to give it a go, albeit under controlled circumstances. Koosha lends me his phone, which already has the Fetch app installed, and I click on it, just as I would if looking for an Uber.
It shows me that the nearest available car is a two-minute drive away in another car park. It also shows the amount of charge left on the battery (49 per cent) and a hire rate — 50p per mile in this case (though the final tariff has yet to be decided).
I click on ‘collect car’ and it sends a signal to the control room. A member of staff, sitting at an office desk, in front of a steering wheel and four screens, starts driving the car round to meet me.
The screens give him a 360-degree view of the route and in next to no time, my car pulls up.
Were this a real trip, I would just hop in and go. However, I want to see what the technology is like.
I ask Koosha to take the car for a spin while I sit there looking at my phone with my feet up. That, it must be said, is not easy in this tiddly little car, but Fetch will only be using regular-sized cars on the open road.
The football ground is operating as a part-time Covid vaccination centre and I certainly provide some light entertainment for those going to or from the queue for a jab. I am hardly a threat to pedestrians as some of them are going faster than I am.
I click on ‘collect car’ and it sends a signal to the control room. A member of staff, sitting at an office desk, in front of a steering wheel and four screens, starts driving the car round to meet me. The screens give him a 360-degree view of the route and in next to no time, my car pulls up
For now, the plan is to reassure the public.
For the first 18 months of operation on the open road, Fetch plans to send a driver inside the vehicle on every delivery.
These drivers won’t be driving — though they will be able to take the controls if they wish — but are for show.
‘They are just there so that the public and the authorities can get to see how this works without being worried,’ says Koosha.
Once the car reaches the customer, the driver will hop out, retrieve a scooter from the boot and scoot back to base. In due course, they will just disappear.
During the first couple of years, the vehicles will limit their speed to 30mph, too.
The whole business depends on 5G mobile telecommunication technology, so Fetch can only expand as fast as 5G coverage is rolled out around the country.
Koosha chose to set this up in Milton Keynes because it is well ahead in its 5G coverage — there is a vast 5G mast outside the stadium — and the city has form when it comes to trying out new stuff (remember the concrete cows?).
‘We are a world leader in this sort of technology,’ says Peter Marland, the Labour leader of the coalition-run city council, which is an enthusiastic supporter of the scheme.
‘Manufacturers like the fact that the people here are very open to innovation.’
He points to the fact that Milton Keynes is the testbed for the Starship network of automated, driverless delivery carts which are already taking groceries and other shopping around.
They use public pavements and cross public highways. They have also been a major hit during the pandemic.
You tap an app on your phone and an empty electric car turns up wherever you happen to be, driven to you by a driver operating the thing remotely from a call centre in Estonia (pictured above)
‘They are actually operated from a call centre in Estonia but everybody loves them,’ says Mr Marland, pointing out that his town and the area around it is home to the UK headquarters of car giants such as Volkswagen and Mercedes-Benz, not to mention several Formula One teams (Silverstone racetrack is just up the road).
He also points out that Milton Keynes is a mish-mash of modern grid-style streets, country roads and Victorian terraces, so tech companies find it a useful testbed for every type of driving situation.
And innovation, he adds, is in the local DNA. ‘We do have Bletchley Park here, don’t forget,’ he says.
There are mountains to climb in terms of fine-tuning the technology, roll-outs and public confidence, of course.
Koosha points out that a trained remote driver has better all-round visibility than a real person in a real driving seat, but he accepts that it is still a major challenge for society to get its head round ghost vehicles.
The pace of change, though, is remarkable. It was less than five years ago that 37-year-old Koosha — an Iranian-born Cambridge electrical engineering graduate — was working in Berlin and met Indian engineering whizz Sandip Gangakhedkar, 34, who came up with the idea of a driverless cab-cum-car hire app and designed the system.
Now they have a team of investors who have already pumped several million into this, plus key backers — including the UK Government’s Innovate programme — and a staff of 16.
I feel a great pang of sympathy for the poor old driver of the London cabbie as yet another existential threat to that much-loved institution looms into view.
But it will, at least, be a relief not to have to hear him on the subject.