I happen to live close enough to my office that I get to walk to work every day.
It’s less than a mile and I’ve really come to enjoy my morning commute.
After all, I get some exercise, fresh air, and a free dose of vitamin D.
But of course, the best part about all this is that I don’t have deal with the inconvenience of driving during the morning rush. I can enjoy my bagel and browse the most recent tech developments on my phone without posing a threat to those around me.
But most of us aren’t so conveniently located to their place of work – a friend of mine was recently telling me she commutes 3 hours a day!
The fact is, legs can only move so fast and so far which is exactly why most of us rely on cars for travel.
Fortunately for the average commuter, robotic technology will soon provide car travelers the ability to enjoy their bagels and coffee on the go. Or maybe in the case of UK drivers, tea and crumpets.
The UK’s Department of Transport has just released a policy paper outlining plans to test autonomous vehicles on UK roads by the end of 2013. Until now, autonomous vehicles in the UK have only been tested on private land.
These test trials will take place on low-traffic rural and suburban roads, and will be completed by Oxford University’s Mobile Robotics Group. Trials will be semi-autonomous, meaning there will be a human driver in the car in the case that emergency intervention is required.
The Mobile Robotics Group has outfitted a Nissan (OTC: NSANY) Leaf with an autonomous navigation system for just $7,700 (£5,000). The system has appropriately been dubbed the “RobotCar”.
These developments are promising in two main respects. First, it shows that the United States is not the only market for robotic or autonomous cars – other nations are now opening up to the technology. Second, it suggests economic viability in this emerging industry.
Nevada, Florida, and California have each already passed legislation in favor of autonomous cars. Google’s fleet of robotic cars have already driven over 300 thousand miles on U.S. with zero accidents. Further trials in the UK are likely to drive the autonomous car market even closer to point of commercialization.
Google’s entire system runs at about $70 thousand (cost of Prius included) which is financially impractical for consumers. However, the Mobile Robotics Group’s price tag is far more promising. Believe it or not, the team of engineers estimates that the cost can be brought down to just $155.
Of course, there are limitations to this system and it is not as sophisticated as Google’s. Most notably, the RobotCar can only take over when it is familiar with a particular path. In other words, drivers have to take control when traveling new routes.
But considering that most of our commutes take place on a designated path, the benefits of such a system are still incredibly appealing.
Nuts and Bolts
For now, the best opportunities for investors in this area are in the nuts and bolts of autonomous technologies.
Robotic cars rely on sensors just as human drivers rely on their eyes and ears when driving. Currently, the market leader in this technology is Mobileye.
Mobileye is currently valued at $1.5 billion and contracts with 19 international automakers. The company has already seen investments from Goldman Sachs (NYSE: GS), Porsche (XETRA: PAH3), and other leading institutional investors.
Mobileye uses processor chips developed by STMicroelectronics (NYSE: STM) and the company holds patents that are directly linked to these processors. This means that STM is currently along for the ride.
If Mobileye can hold onto its current status as an industry leader, STM will likely receive a revenue boost as autonomous cars enter the roadways.
STM is up 105 percent over the past year:
Turning progress to profits,