Season 5, Post 19: The autonomous bus stops here

Self-driving cars have been a feature in the US for some time. Most services are limited to specific boroughs and the trend is by no means widespread.

Season 5, Post 19: The autonomous bus stops here

Self-driving cars have been a feature in the US for some time. Most services are limited to specific boroughs and the trend is by no means widespread. The British have not been quite yet ready to embrace the technology, but an autonomous bus service has been operating on an Oxford business park since March. In the interests of research, your intrepid author travelled up to Milton Park in the hope of finding out more.

Milton Park represents a logical location for a trial. It is a science campus close to Oxford that is home to around 250 companies and approximately 9,000 employees. The service, a 15-seater single decker minibus, operates on a circular route round the park every 15 minutes during business hours. Passengers are reassured that a qualified driver will be on board at all times, able to take control of the vehicle, should it become necessary.

So far, so good. However, when your author arrived at the bus stop last week, an A4 piece of paper was taped over the timetable. Dated April 4, it stated that “phase one of the trial had now concluded” and that “phase two will start within the next few weeks.” Given the absence of evidence of phase two (and no bus ride), your author was forced to do some old-fashioned research and ask members of the public what they had made of phase one. Local employees were invariably positive, describing the service as “a real success.” Phase two will see the service extended to nearby Didcot rail station, apparently by “popular demand.” An alternative view was provided by several taxi drivers. Notwithstanding the risk to their business, the (perhaps valid) point was made that other drivers may become frustrated by a vehicle that is restricted to driving at just 15 miles per hour. Some people also “feel uncomfortable” at the sight of a driverless bus. The route to Didcot station is also necessarily more complicated, on some main roads with more potential hazards, relative to the science park.

These anecdotes are insightful, since they provide a great snapshot of both the opportunities and the challenges faced by autonomous transport solutions, a topic we first discussed in 2017. There tends to be inevitable resistance to the novel, particularly if it comes in a driverless form. Nonetheless, we should expect more autonomous trials. Environmental imperatives will also drive the momentum (no pun intended). Autonomous buses (and cars) are typically 100% electric and hence emission free. Oxford County Council, for example, has set a target to achieve a net-zero transport network by 2040. The technologies underpinning autonomous vehicles such as vision sensing should also continue to get better, improving the experience both for passengers and other drivers. Your author certainly hopes that he will have the luck to be able to report on an improved service before not too long...

17 May 2023

The above does not constitute investment advice and is the sole opinion of the author at the time of publication. Past performance is no guide to future performance and the value of investments and income from them can fall as well as rise.

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Alex Gunz, Fund Manager


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