FiveAI to start a trial of its shared autonomous car fleet in London in 2019

After raising $35 million to develop driverless car technology and a strategy to build a fleet of shared vehicles, UK startup FiveAI is announcing its first on-street trial: a service aimed at commuters in the London outer boroughs of Bromley and Croydon. Projected to begin in late 2019, it will kick off first with a 10-month “data gathering” exercise, which will see five FiveAI vehicles, with drivers, collect information about road conditions, the movement of pedestrians and various vehicles, and other variables to help train its AI platform.

The new trial will be the first on-street effort from the UK startup, which has up to now been testing its technology primarily in Bedfordshire, at automotive testing centre Milbrook Proving Ground, according to Ben Peters, FiveAI’s VP of product who is also a co-founder of the company (alongside Stan BolandSteve Allpress, John Redford and Simon Walker).

The news of the London trial comes as TechCrunch has learned that FiveAI is also about to start raising a new round of funding.

While the $35 million FiveAI has raised to date is considered the highest amount of funding for an autonomous car company in Europe, it is a very modest figure when compared to startups in the US and China. Indeed, although transportation across Europe is estimated to be a $400 billion market, Peters estimates that no more than $100 million has been raised by autonomous driving startups in the region, versus around $8 billion by autonomous car startups the US, home to startups like Zoox and Nutonomy (which, like FiveAI, are building platforms that they plan to use in their own fleets), transportation providers like Uber, and car makers (which themselves are acquiring startup talent to kickstart their efforts), and tech giants like Google that approach cars like the next big hardware challenge.

But there is a clear opportunity: Europe has a lot of urban density, roads that are less likely to follow grid patterns, and road names are very often the opposite of clearly marked. These factors make Europe a hard problem to tackle, but one that a local company might be more amenable to trying.

With that in mind, Peters would not say how much FiveAI is looking to raise, or anything about the investors, but he did confirm that the round would be FiveAI’s largest to date, with the aim of expanding trials to more cities across Europe.

In the meantime, Bromley and Croydon may not be the most high-profile parts of London to those outside of England, but Peters said that FiveAI is eschewing Central London and opting instead to focus on these two boroughs for a couple of reasons.

One is that the area affords the startup some sympathetic guinea pigs, or as Peters calls them, “friendly users.” Direct Line, the insurance company that is a partner of FiveAI’s, has recently moved its offices to Bromley from Croydon, and so there are employees living in the latter borough who have to commute to the former on a regular basis. This gives FiveAI an opportunity to build a service tailored to that market.

Another is the opportunity to fill a gap that isn’t being addressed by others. The center of London is very congested, but there are already a number of transportation alternatives attempting to address that issue. “There are a lot of problems to solve there, but they are very well served by current providers,” said Peters. “But in Zones 4 to 6 [the outer boroughs of London], about one quarter of people are still driving their own vehicles to and from work.” That presents an opportunity for a shared mobility service.

It will take a good 10 months before the first FiveAI vehicles can offer rides, and likely more months before no driver has to be present to engage the vehicle if something goes awry. Peters said that this slow early work will help the startup add more roads, areas and cities to the service more quickly down the line. “It doesn’t have to be as slow in the future, maybe just a few months to get up and going,” he said. “We’re really targeting an urban service, which is the difficult part. Autonomous driving in urban areas is the hardest challenge, one that is still unsolved.”

Updated with modified details about future fundraise and to correct name of trialling company to Direct Line.