Ohmio Automotion, an Auckland-based autonomous vehicle technology provider, has been introducing self-driving, fully electric autonomous vehicles on the road, with multiple deployments operating across Australia and New Zealand.
Amidst all these exciting developments, Auto Futures caught up with Executive Chairman, Mohammed Hikmet, to learn more about how the company is helping create entire autonomous vehicles eco-systems.
Twenty years ago, Ohmio did not exist. Instead, Mohammed’s company, HMI Technologies, which he co-founded with his brother Ahmed, specialised in manufacturing Variable Message Signs (VMS), or signs that communicate with drivers to provide them more information while on the roads. So, what changed then? According to Mohammed, the realisation that it would not be long before autonomous technologies took over the roads.
This realisation was crystallised following a major calamity – the 2011 tsunami in Japan. When he saw the devastating images emerging from Japan of people driving towards the gigantic waves because they had no information beforehand, the notion of transportation safety began taking root.
“Every 23 seconds, we lose one person in the world because of traffic incidents. Of these, 93% are the result of human error. Imagine if we could significantly reduce those 93% of human-related incidents,” says Hikmet.
“In 2015, we started to realise that autonomous vehicles are becoming a reality and will be a common feature of transportation in the near future. So, if our existing products, our VMS signs, are meant to communicate with the drivers, what would happen to HMI Technologies if there would be no drivers in the future? Once this realisation dawned, we moved on from waiting to see what the change would be to participating in making the change ourselves.
“As a result, we started to dig deeper into autonomous vehicles technology. We participated with local councils and governments in Australia and New Zealand and established three different autonomous vehicle trials in Christchurch, Sydney and Melbourne,” adds Hikmet.
These trials effectively saw the formation of a consortium of different players, comprising governments, universities, transport agencies, insurance companies, parking companies, airport authorities and telecommunication companies, all of whom had their own interest in discovering more about autonomous transport.
The Benefits of Building Virtual Tracks
Ohmio started putting autonomous vehicle technology on the ground in 2016, but Hikmet was surprised by the approach taken by its competitors.
“While our approach was to establish an autonomous ecosystem, comprising of the autonomous vehicle, the technology infrastructure around it and the management of both the vehicle and the infrastructure, traditional and non-traditional vehicle manufacturers were looking at the issue of autonomous technology in a silo.”
“With HMI Technologies’ traditional focus on electronic infrastructure technology, we then created Ohmio (conveniently o HMI o, with the ‘o’ representing wheels), which has a focus on vehicle technology. Having this kind of visibility, the vehicle manufacturing and the infrastructure, we think, placed us at the forefront of autonomous vehicle development. For us, the autonomous vehicle ecosystem is 40% vehicle, 40% infrastructure and 20% as system management,” he adds.
Hikmet continues: “We are working on autonomous Level 4 vehicles, which means that the vehicle is capable of driving in a known and expected environment. In a known and expected environment, we know where the vehicles should go; we know the environment, the city around us, the streets and then we will allow the vehicle to operate there. Our vehicle is like a tram that travels on virtual tracks (not steel tracks in concrete). We can create tracks with software and the vehicle will follow these tracks”.
“You might ask what is the benefit of having virtual tracks? This means we can have one virtual track layout in the morning and change it because of a football match happening in that area of the city in the evening. We can change layouts and can upload them immediately to the vehicle to start following those new layouts. These vehicles generally operate at a slow speed (uo to 25 km/hr) and follow dedicated lanes (as described above). However, they can also operate in special shared lanes with other vehicles. They follow their virtual track to an accuracy of millimetres.
“We started the journey of production with 20 passenger shuttles (our Ohmio LIFT model) and this year we will start manufacturing another shuttle model which will have two vehicles joined together (like an articulated bus) with a capacity of 40 passengers. This will be our Ohmio LIFT XT1 model. Next year, we are looking at manufacturing a ‘tram variant’ of our Ohmio vehicles with a capacity of 50+ passengers. We are clearly heading towards making larger vehicles.”
Easing the Safety Fear
As our conversation progressed, I wanted to know more about the trials running in different locations. According to Hikmet, Ohmio has classified the trials into different categories. For instance, in Christchurch, it has been running in an airport environment, in Melbourne at La Trobe University and in Sydney, at Sydney Olympic Park. This means that each application is tested in different environments.
The trial in Sydney has led to other deployments and it allowed Ohmio and its partners to learn about the eco-system.
He explains: “We had the chance to understand the current boundaries, what to expect and what needs to be done. These were important initial steps in order to continue to progress forward. The mass of innovation is not expected to come only from the AV manufacturer, but it will come from potential third parties who consider this vehicle to be a platform to implement their own technologies and services. Having such third parties’ partners further strengthens Ohmio’s ability to fit better in any eco-system, anywhere in the world.”
While we were still on the topic of the trials, one of the key areas that was being investigated was community acceptance of autonomous vehicles. While there is a lot of eagerness and excitement related to autonomous vehicles, safety remains the highest concern for many people.
According to Hikmet, the only way to alleviate this safety fear is through exposure. “I think once more vehicles get introduced for passengers to try them, the more that fear will disappear, and then you will see people thinking more about the benefits than the fear. This is how more demand will be introduced,” he says.
We are already working with our partners to implement other advanced ideas using autonomous vehicles.
As our conversation drew to a close, we began speaking about Ohmio’s overseas partnerships in South Korea and China.
“Each one of them is different,” says Hikmet. “The Transport Research Institute in South Korea is working closely with us. We were really looking forward to the smart city project SolaSeaDo but they are still waiting to be assigned as a smart city. However, there are other exciting projects happening in South Korea. Many other cities in South Korea have started their own approach in their planning to introduce autonomous shuttles.”
For example, in Sejong, the new administrative capital of South Korea, it’s partnering with the city, the transport agency, the Korean Transport Research Institute and local partners to potentially deploy up to 250 vehicles.
“These vehicles will operate everywhere inside the city as a form of passenger transportation, and we are already working with our partners to implement other advanced ideas using autonomous vehicles. I would say South Korea is one of the first in the world to have that kind of forward thinking towards the entire autonomous vehicles eco-system”.
Speaking about the Heshan Industrial City Management Committee in China, where advanced technologies are being employed for the production of Ohmio’s shuttles, Hikmet explains: “It has contributed to our international growth by being close to the manufacturers of the technologies required inside the vehicle, such as batteries, motors, and other essential parts of the vehicle.”
“Having that visibility and access to these industries allowed us to further improve our designs to meet the international requirements when mass producing the vehicles,” he concludes.