Ocado’s £10m (US$14m) investment in Oxbotica is the latest indication of how Oxfordshire has become a magnet for investors in connected and autonomous vehicle (CAV) and electric vehicle (EV) technology. The partnership will see the grocery platform and one of the world’s leaders in autonomous vehicle software collaborate on hardware and software interfaces for a range of autonomous vehicles, from warehouse operations to last-mile deliveries.
Oxbotica is one of the University of Oxford’s 200 successful spin-outs. It has investors from Australia, China, the UK and the US, and in January it raised US$47m in a Series B round.
Other prominent players in the CAV field in Oxfordshire include Latent Logic, launched in 2017 and bought by Waymo two years later for an undisclosed sum. Waymo’s owner Alphabet has now chosen to make Oxford its European engineering headquarters.
Then there is Five, a tech developer whose Oxford site is working on how to test and measure the accuracy of CAV driving systems. It recently raised in US$77m in funding from Swiss and Russian investors. These organisations could choose anywhere in the world to develop and invest in the future of mobility. So, what attracts them to Oxfordshire?
First, there is the meeting of minds. The region’s two universities—the University of Oxford and Oxford Brookes University—have been developing the best talents in AI, engineering and motorsport for years. Having proximity and access to leading experts working at some of the world’s top research centres is very attractive and extremely feasible. Start-ups and investors enjoy being part of a unique ecosystem of collaboration and innovation.
Oxfordshire also offers unrivalled access to world-class facilities, such as the Culham Science Centre, where the CAV Pit Lane at RACE (Remote Applications in Extreme Environments), together with the Millbrook proving ground has now been used by vehicle manufacturers and self-driving vehicle developers in over 80 R&D projects to test and improve their autonomous systems. One such is Oxford-based StreetDrone, the first company in Europe to run an open-source self-driving vehicle on the road. It is currently deploying CAV logistics vehicles in Nissan’s Sunderland plant, a project aided by a 5G Create grant from the UK government.
With energy efficiency one of biggest challenges in the move to electrification, the Faraday Institution at Harwell, just south of Oxford, one of the world’s leading hubs in energy storage and new battery technologies, is investigating solutions. In March it committed £22.6m to battery research that will undoubtedly help to improve EV technology through research into new materials, increased capacity and weight reduction and is supporting innovators such as Nextrode, working on the use of Carbon-Ion (C-Ion) to offer safer, faster charging as well as avoiding the use of rare earth materials such as lithium and cobalt.
Other young companies in the region leading the way into new battery materials—and attracting investors at the same time—include Oxis Energy, which is developing lithium sulphur chemistry. It has won £24m in international funding from aerospace and chemicals companies in Brazil and France.
Nexeon, which has raised £30m and has offices in Japan as well as a lab in Oxford, is now a world leader in engineered silicon materials to enhance rechargeable battery technology. Meanwhile V2GO, or Vehicle to Grid Oxfordshire, an EDF-sponsored consortium led by the University of Oxford, is investigating how electricity stored in EVs could flow back into the grid.
Several electric motor manufacturers are already established in the region and one attention-grabber is Arrival, a ‘unicorn’ valued at €3bn after significant investment from Hyundai, Kia and BlackRock. It has located its R&D centre and van production in Banbury and has chosen Bicester as the site of its new microfactory for zero-emission buses. Others include YASA making up to 100,000 lightweight and powerful electric motors for OEMs every year, and Indian-backed Saietta, which is manufacturing its pioneering axial flux electric motor for use in vehicles from scooters to buses and delivery vehicles.
Oxfordshire’s prominent cluster of pioneering motorsport tech companies such as Williams Advanced Engineering is also known as Motorsport Valley. These businesses are taking electric mobility seriously, with Roborace, the creator of the world’s first driverless electric racing platform, being one example.
Indian-owned Mahindra Racing, one of the ten founding teams of the FIA Formula E Championship, has its manufacturing base in Banbury. Chinese automotive manufacturer Nio has based its Formula E performance technology research centre and advanced engineering group at Begbroke Science Park to the north of Oxford. Another Chinese Formula E investor with a foothold in Oxfordshire is SECA, which backs team DS TECHEETAH. Its team principal is Mark Preston, the StreetDrone founder.
In Banbury, Prodrive Advanced Technology stepped away from its motorsport focus to help Volta Trucks create the Volta Zero, the world’s first purpose-built full-electric 16-tonne commercial vehicle, in just ten months, demonstrating the nimbleness that tomorrow’s vehicle development will require.
Oxfordshire’s location between London and the traditional motor manufacturing heartland of the Midlands puts it within an area now designated Testbed UK, where CAV technologies from concept to manufacture are brought together. This convergence is another factor that makes it attractive to foreign investors, as well as the scientific, engineering and academic collaboration that comes from being one side of the Golden Triangle with London and Cambridge.
Institutions, facilities and location are important but so are people, and the region can boast one of the best-educated workforces, with 51% of the working age population qualified to degree level or above. Automotive skills run deep here in the home of the some of the UK’s most iconic motor manufacturing sites such as Cowley, now the BMW Mini plant. Around 4,000 of the 23,000 people employed in manufacturing in Oxfordshire are involved in the automotive sector and more than 9,000 people are employed in the low carbon economy.
Local authorities are walking the talk too, with Oxfordshire leading innovation on future mobility and the city of Oxford leading the way in encouraging low carbon transport aiming to become the first UK city to introduce a zero emission zone, with an ambition to be a zero-carbon city by 2040.
As Oxbotica and Ocado contemplate their future together, Paul Newman, Co-Founder and Chief Technology Officer of Oxbotica, commented: “By combining both companies’ cutting-edge knowledge and resources, we hope to bring our Universal Autonomy vision to life and continue to solve some of the world’s most complex autonomy challenges.”
Moving towards autonomy and efficient low carbon transport does indeed require facing complex challenges. Overcoming them will mean drawing together the finest minds in academia, engineering, and technology in a place with full R&D resources and manufacturing capabilities. That is why Oxfordshire is now in pole position in the race to invest in this sector.
Sebastian Johnson is Head of Innovation and Inward Investment for the Oxfordshire Local Enterprise Partnership. His team helps companies from across the world establish operations in the area.