London’s Biggest Private Taxi Firm Aims to Roll Out Self-Driving Cars by 2021

A fleet of autonomous taxis could roll onto the streets of the U.K. capital within three years, after one of London’s biggest private-hire taxi companies struck a deal with a maker of autonomous vehicle software.

Addison Lee Group, which has about 5,000 cars in active service in the city, signed a strategic partnership with software-maker Oxbotica, the two companies said Monday. Oxbotica was recently also chosen to guide the European Space Agency’s future Mars rover.

Andy Boland, Addison Lee’s chief executive officer, said in a statement that “urban transport will change beyond recognition in the next 10 years with the introduction of self-driving services” and that the partnership with Oxbotica would help put the company “at the very forefront of this change.”

The effort is one of several self-driving initiatives in the U.K. Earlier this year, Nissan began testing autonomous vehicles on British roads, and Ford has begun testing similar technology with Jaguar Land Rover in Coventry. Meanwhile FiveAI, a British startup, has said it will begin trials of an autonomous ride-sharing service in London’s suburbs next year.

Financial terms of the partnership between Addison Lee and Oxbotica were not disclosed, but the companies said they will pool technology, expertise and resources to create an autonomous transportation service. Neither firm is making a set monetary contribution or making an investment in the other.

“We will eventually work out some sort of commercial arrangement, but we don’t feel the need to have those discussions first,” Graeme Smith, Oxbotica’s chief executive officer, said in an interview.

Oxbotica intends to deploy autonomous vehicles in conjunction with Addison Lee in 2021, Smith said, with the service being rolled out to a wider area of the city as soon as a year later. He said that because U.K. law does not currently allow for vehicles to be operated on public roads without a human driver, initially Addison Lee drivers will be in the vehicles to assist passengers with luggage and also to take over in the event of an emergency.

The startup doesn’t build autonomous cars itself. Instead, it creates the artificial intelligence software that controls them, and cloud-based software that works out optimum routes for entire fleets once they’re on the road.

Around the world, some of the most ambitious driverless efforts have targeted smaller cities and suburban areas, where roads are wider and less congested. Tackling the crowded, narrow streets of a city like London is considered a particular challenge for these technologies.

Earlier this month, Oxbotica announced it had recruited Fraser Robinson, a former senior Uber executive, to join its board. And in September, the startup announced it had received 14 million pounds ($18.3 million) in venture capital funding from a group of investors led by Axa SA, the insurance group, and also including the IP Group and Parkwalk Advisors.