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Milton Keynes might not be the first place that springs to mind when you think about the automotive industry but, despite Britain’s newest city lacking the romance of Modena and the history of Detroit, a number of companies are building the future of driving there.

One such company is Fetch. Its premise is simple, it offers people access to cars that they can drive to their destination before a remote driver takes it back to the depot. This, Fetch reckons, is more convenient than using a ride-hailing company as well as being less than half the price per mile.

Of course, things that sound too good to be true often are, so we headed up to Milton Keynes to see what Fetch was all about.

Beauty in simplicity

Currently, Fetch is testing its vehicles around Stadium MK – the home of the MK Dons football team – and, upon first impressions, everything seems remarkably simple – perhaps even too simple.

We’re greeted by the team, consisting of just five people. In a small little office within the stadium, there are a bunch of laptops and wires, as you’d expect.

However, the real attention-grabber is the four computer monitors with a set of pedals and wheel usually found hooked up to PlayStation consoles – it would make an enviable gaming setup for many.

Fetch Screens
A Fetch driver’s workplace

But, despite its looks, this is the nerve centre of Fetch’s operations – where the remote driver can pilot the car in real-time from the office on the roads around the stadium.

Using cameras in its cars and a stable internet connection, the remote driver has full control of the vehicle. The guys at Fetch are keen to point out that they are not an autonomous driving startup – they are purely here for remote driving.

Currently, the company is using a small EV built on a modified forklift chassis to potter around the stadium testing out its capabilities. Fear not, however, when the solution finally comes to market, Fetch is aiming at using full-sized cars.

Fetch App 1
The Fetch app

The process for getting one of the cars is pretty straightforward. You log onto the Fetch app, select a pickup location and a remote driver will bring the car over to you. Then, you get in, drive where you need to go, and drop the car off. At big locations such as airports, Fetch will let drivers park the car themselves or valet park it for them to let another driver pick it up.

In the car

Getting into the tiny car, along with a safety driver from the company should anything go wrong, feels fairly normal. 

However, once the car  is up and running, feeling it move around without the driver operating the controls is weird. However, the ride is smooth without any big jerks or sudden changes in direction as you might expect from a truly autonomous car.

Fetch Car
The Fetch test car

This, of course, is the major difference – with a person controlling the car, rather than a computer, all the learning and knowledge drivers have built up over the years, carries over directly.

What’s more, setting up the cars to use Fetch’s software is a matter of hours, rather than days or weeks. In fact, the company told us that, thanks to using off-the-shelf parts and components, cars can be retrofitted for remote driving in around half a day. They get a new modem, to ensure better, more stable internet connections, as well as a more powerful internal computer, and extra cameras.

However, as Fetch is keen to point out to us, it is a software, rather than hardware company. What’s more, Fetch has plans beyond simply undercutting Uber.

The big idea(s)

Fetch has two business models. The first, which we’ve already spoken about, is to undercut Uber and Bolt in the UK by using remote drivers based in locations with lower labour costs.

The company reckons that this could see a cost per mile of just 50p, compared to the £1-1.50 that Bolt and Uber typically have.

This will see Fetch provide the drivers and the vehicles to customers and is slated to start this year. In fact, the company is planning a big test using 40 cars at the Women’s Euro football tournament this year, where a number of the games are due to be played at Stadium MK.

Fetch Camera
Some of the sensors on the Fetch car

The company reckons it needs one driver for every 2-3 cars depending on the demand at that time of the day. This means that, unlike Uber or Bolt, when the service is busier, the customer doesn’t incur any extra cost.

However, the second, and perhaps more ambitious business model is for fleets and executive car-sharing companies. Fetch will provide the remote drivers and the software, but not the cars.

This could be huge for companies with multiple sites that are slightly out of walking distance, for example. Fetch says that MK Dons have been trialling the service to help staff get from the stadium to the club’s training ground and offices around Milton Keynes.

Of course, the big danger in all of this is true level 4 and 5 automation. However, with the latter some way off and the former still in very limited use, Fetch isn’t too concerned. And, of course, using a remote driver service will be far cheaper than developing a completely autonomous service. 

That low cost is really the crux of Fetch’s offering – and we’d expect many to find it quite fetching, indeed.

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