Having not heard much from Westfield Technology Group in the past few years, Iain Robertson was pleasantly surprised to be informed about its most recent innovation in the field of self-driving information pods in a usefully closed public environment.
Despite being immensely successful in its own right, Westfield gained renown for its own developments in the Lotus ‘replicar’ scene. Although it was not the case, the West Midlands carmaker was often perceived as the poor relation to Surrey-based Caterham Sports Cars, the officially licensed manufacturer of the Lotus Seven. The contrast between smooth talking salesman, Graham Nearn, and the grittier accent of Westfield’s founder, Chris Smith, aided and abetted the statuses of both firms both positively and negatively, a factor not helped by ‘bad blood’ between the rivals.
In many respects, the industrial design rights case threatened by Caterham led to Westfield relying on its own mettle to improve markedly the Lotus Seven original. Ironically, the Westfield ‘Seven’ was much closer in spirit to Colin Chapman’s original tube frame and fibreglass bodied two-seaters, as Caterham relied on aluminium panels instead. Westfield would also introduce a Lotus 11 replica, available in both kit car and fully built forms.
While Caterham attempted to develop unsuccessfully its own 21 model, Westfield has been in the vanguard of future transport technology and is a somewhat altered business to its small volume specialist sportscar roots. Able to tap into the various grants and alternative tech propositions centred on the West Midlands heartland of the UK motor industry, Westfield has become a transportation pioneer. While EV’s power dense developments are a virtual given, the more controversial area of autonomous motoring has proven to be highly productive for the company.
While government fostered programmes in the field have led to varying degrees of antipathy among motorists, with a majority stating a distrust in the technology, Westfield has been very careful with its developments. The creation of a driverless pod runs close parallels with Westfield’s tube chassis and fibreglass bodied sportscars. However, working to a ‘first mile; last mile’ premise, Westfield Pods have been working successfully in closed loop environments, enhancing efficient customer movements for Heathrow Airport (car park to Terminal 5), linking Greenwich’s Intercontinental Hotel to transport hubs and even supporting the movements of people and goods within University Hospital, Birmingham.
Another application for the Westfield Pod has been operating at Brockhole Visitor Centre, near Windermere, where the lack of an on-board safety steward is a clear breakthrough. Westfield provides a virtual tour to Pod users, as it follows its predetermined route also providing additional local event information. The vehicle is also equipped with the latest voice recognition technology that allows visually impaired passengers to feel more confident.
Westfield CEO, Julian Turner, emphasises that the trial represents a breakthrough in self-driving travel, supported by a prediction that ten per cent of all vehicles could be autonomous by 2030. “We had the system tested thoroughly by independent parties,” he outlines, “with Nexor (cyber security), Loughborough University and AECOM, for its technical operation, Burgess Salmon for the legal framework and Axa for the insurance. The results highlighted the success of our technological trial in the beautiful environment of the Lake District National Park. The positive feedback from thousands of visitors has made us really proud.”
The Pod was running on Westfield’s latest sensor payload and software to detect road conditions and obstacles in the route but required neither a driver, nor steering wheel. Julian believes that a standard has now been set by Westfield, which delivers more fully autonomous vehicles from its Dudley base than any other UK manufacturer. The Lake District attracts over 19m visitors annually, most arriving by car, thus presenting congestion issues, poorer air quality and transport connectivity issues in the area. The electric Pod provides a solution and is a massive step change in thinking that can also allow vehicles to be built in the local area to create jobs and benefit local people. In fact, plans are already established to deploy this technology on a larger commercial scale.
Westfield is something of an autonomous company in its own right, owning all of the IP for both related hardware and software. The Pod contains bio-composites in the bodywork, which is produced from linseed oil and hemp, while a solar panel in the roof helps to charge the Pod while it is moving. Many of the team that made the concept a reality were students recruited originally from Harper Adams University, in Shropshire, Salford University, Cranfield University and Dudley College.
Julian restated: “While there are some obvious differences, the technology between our sportscars and the Pod are actually very similar. They both benefit from the same spaceframe chassis and composite body construction. All we have done is take our sports car technology and implement it to the passenger transport arena, while extending its autonomous potential. A shift towards connected, autonomous, shared and electric (CASE) travel has been in the making for a number of years now and will only become more prevalent as the country turns increasingly towards electrified transport.
“As a nation, we are consuming things a dozen times quicker than we are creating them, so something has got to change. If you look at the whole lifecycle of a typical motorcar, it is clearly an environmentally unfriendly process, being manufactured in different parts of the world, being shipped over on boats and incorporating higher total lifecycle costs. I cannot see a more efficient way of building, or maintaining, a vehicle than the Westfield Pod. It took around a month to be built here in the UK and we believe it can create a lasting impression on passenger travel for many years to come.”
Conclusion: While gaining broader public acceptance of autonomous travel pods may prove fraught, short-haul, closed loop exercises display efficiency benefits that will warrant wider applications and Westfield Technology Group is in the forefront of those exciting British developments.