As the UK continues to fight for its position as the European pioneer of connected and autonomous vehicle (CAV) technology, Zenzic has put itself forward as one of the key drivers of the revolution.

The ‘co-ordination hub’, formally known as Meridian, is a joint venture launched by the UK government and the CAV industry back in 2017 to focus on the key areas of UK capability in the connected and self-driving sector. By bringing together government, industry and academia, Zenzic hopes to cement the UK’s standing in the autonomous vehicle industry and deliver a 2030 roadmap to guide key decision-makers, policy-makers and future investors.

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Currently, Zenzic is running a £200 million programme, 50 percent of which is funded by the government and 50 percent by industry. The fund was put together to allow organisations operating within the sector to collectively build a comprehensive testing and development environment across the UK.

“The programme currently has six projects, all of them commercially unique and under different companies.” Zenzic's director of innovation and technology, Dr Richard Porter, tells Techworld. “Essentially, what we’ve done is orchestrate and incentivise industry to build specific capabilities for the UK, which includes everything from urban controlled environments to public facilities.”

The money for the projects comes from the government's Centre of Connected and Autonomous Vehicles (CCAV). The centre has ownership of the policy and therefore gets to make the final decisions about where funding comes from and who it goes to.

Once Innovate UK (a non-departmental public body) has independently assessed the projects and decided what should be given funding, Zenzic are brought back in to help coordinate the delivery of the projects.

“Our role is to advise the government on the types of capabilities we should be building and work with connected and autonomous vehicle companies and Innovate UK to write the competition scope,” says Porter.

Measuring the UK’s progress

The UK government has already invested around £120 million in collaborative CAV R&D projects, 89 of which are funded through government-backed schemes. Porter says that the amount of money collected from both government and industry now sits around half a billion pounds.

Unfortunately, it’s not all sunshine from here on out. “There was a commitment to get visible commercial services running by 2021,” says Porter. “We will reach that with these projects but the question is how do we scale beyond 2021 from what will be tens of vehicles to maybe thousands or tens of thousands by 2030.

“When we look at how technology is adopted, it’s never the technology which is the core blocker. We need to start focusing on business models, legislation, regulation and incentivisation to get us to scale.”

The problem now is not the lack of funding or development, it’s getting the public on side. In a recent study commissioned by Zenzic, 250 experts, including CEOs, CTOs and engineers, from across 100 companies in government, business and academia, agreed that public acceptance was the biggest challenge currently facing the industry.

Porter believes that within the population at large, there’s a variety of opinions around autonomous vehicles.

“I get the impression that the case might have been made but people still don’t quote-unquote 'trust' the technology and think they will always be able to drive better than a machine,” he says.

However, he notes that when members of the public become involved with trials or live within close proximity to where trials are taking place, they start to develop a much more favourable view of the technology.

With a rapidly ageing population and around 56 percent of British 17-24-year olds without a driving license, Porter believes the government needs to be selling the benefits of CAVs to these two key demographics who are likely to be the primary users of the technology. Not only will this help to improve acceptance and understanding, but younger populations also tend to be the biggest early adopters of technology, which would help with the industry’s 2030 targets.

Tackling the skills gap

Despite the progress and investment, the UK will struggle to cement its position as a global front-runner if it continues to lack the skills necessary to develop CAV technologies.

The technical skills gap is by no means a new topic of conversation, but the skills of our future workforce and their jobs are becoming harder to define.

The same Zenzic survey that identified public acceptance as the biggest challenge for the CAV industry, ranked the skills gap second. Jobs such as ‘AI Ethics Engineer’, ‘Upskilled Car Mechanic’ and ‘Remote Fleet Manager’ are all roles that didn’t exist a decade ago but have now been deemed vital to the ongoing success of the British autonomous vehicle industry.

For Porter, one way of overcoming this is teaching the workforce of tomorrow transferable skills, rather than courses that come with a pre-determined job title.

“Some of the best graduates that I’ve employed for machine learning or AI jobs have come from astrophysics degrees or courses that train people to solve problems with mathematics and teach them how to think differently," he says.

“We also need to think more about what people want from education and what we can do to support companies that take people on straight out of school. We can’t always wait for people to go through the entire pipeline before we employ them.”

Porter explains that while the CAV industry is undoubtedly going to struggle with the skills gap, companies across all industries will start to experience similar challenges as they pivot towards tech-first business models and realise there’s a shortage of talent across the board.

An alternative approach to education, be it through coding bootcamps, internships, online courses or fast-track courses, is starting to gain support, and Porter believes this is something we’ll start to see more of in the long-term.

“University education is fantastic for many but actually, if you want to get ahead, there are many more people who might be better suited to apprenticeships within the sector. This means we can get them in straight after their A-levels and have them developing and delivering the skills we need straight away.

“We need to get ahead of the curve and have a diverse set of options for people wanting to enter the field. We need to do more to plug the skills gap and utilise everyone, rather than make them compete against each other.”