Microsoft-backed self-driving car maker Wayve might finally have an answer to the driverless vehicle trust debate

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Once the musings of movie makers and authors, self-driving cars are finally beginning to edge into reality.

Yet autonomous vehicle (AV) makers have a problem: as exciting as the technology may be, many passengers don’t want to put their lives in the proverbial hands of a system they don’t understand— consumers don’t all trust the technology.

And that’s the issue London-based Wayve is attempting to tackle head on with a first-of-its kind technology that could prove a game-changer for the industry as a whole.

The autonomous vehicles sector has huge potential: self-driving vehicles are already on the streets in some big cities, while the AV market is predicted to be worth $2.3 trillion globally within a decade.

Companies like Tesla and General Motors have already made strides in the space, with many more competitors vying to carve out a spot for their own creations.

However, delays to the technology and problems with existing services are undermining adoption, leading to a surge in demand for trust and transparency around the offering.

Wayve wants to answer those calls once and for all: developing a system that can explain to drivers how its AI is “thinking” and making driving decisions as a result. 

Lingo-1, launched by Wayve on Thursday, can answer questions from customers and walk through the reasoning behind its driving actions, so users are able to understand the system’s grasp of road safety. 

“One of the big questions we’ve had is how do we make a driving AI safe, understandable, [and] relatable, and the more we thought about it [we realised] language is such a powerful way to do this,” Wayve CEO Alex Kendall told Fortune in an interview Friday. 

“It’s mind-blowing what it’s capable of doing.”

The tool combines what the car “sees” in its surroundings, plans its actions based on those observations, is then able to communicate that to users.

Lingo-1 is about 60% as accurate as human performance now, and as it continues to build on new quantitative data, the level of accuracy is improving, Kendall said.

“That doubled for us in the last month. It’s continuing to climb week on week as we get more data, more experience,” he said. “Right now, Lingo is not perfect, it’s still growing. We think about it like a beachhead piece of research that opens up a wealth of new opportunities for AI.”

Wayve, which has backers including Microsoft and Virgin, has been working on the launch for about two years—well before viral chatbot ChatGPT caught public imagination.

But Kendall conceded that the recent conversations surrounding AI influenced Lingo-1’s launch. 

“This is something we’ve had in the works for a couple of years, but the last couple of months when large language models have taken off and our ability to be inspired by that work is really what’s resulted in Lingo-1,” Kendall said. 

Wayve’s eye on the prize

Founded in 2017, Wayve was part of the AV market through a hype cycle approximately five years ago, when billions of dollars flowed into the industry, though lofty predictions about its future didn’t materialize quite like experts hoped.  

But for its part, the company has continued to bolster customers’ confidence with moves that aim to cut their reliance on 3D maps. Instead, Wayve’s systems could guide drivers on unmapped roads entirely using AI—identifying and acting on potential hazards along the way. 

Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates rode in one of Wayve’s cars in London earlier this year, describing the experience as “surreal” and predicting that a tipping-point for such vehicles wasn’t far away.

In 2022, it raised $200 million in series B funding led by Eclipse Ventures, and its offices in London and California employ 220 people. Representatives at Wayve declined to disclose its most recent valuation.

Safer streets

The growth and adoption of AVs could prove a crucial step towards safer roads, Kendall believes.

He highlighted during a panel discussion at London’s CogX festival on Thursday that 1.3 million lose their lives to road accidents each year globally. In the U.K.—where Wayve was established—2% of the country’s GDP is lost every year due to the costs associated with such accidents, he said. 

While AVs promise to offer better road safety, the public has pushed back against the expansion of robotaxis in cities like San Francisco, where it was available only in selected areas. In July, a group of activists disabled Cruise and Waymo cars by placing traffic cones on their hoods, weeks after a self-driving car in the city hit and killed a dog.

“With AI we can make a much more sustainable and efficient transport system in autonomous driving,” Kendall told an audience at the CogX Festival. 

“I think the clock starts now—we’re seeing very small slivers of adoption, but they’re in affluent areas … where you’ve got good infrastructure,” Kendall said. “It’s going to be an AI solution that allows us to bring it [AVs] to cities like London and others.”

The startup currently works with the likes of British grocer Asda to offer delivery in its self-driven vehicles in limited parts of London. 

A ‘British success story’?

Businesses and governments alike are grappling with how to safely introduce this technology to the public.

Wayve’s home nation, the U.K., has long envisioned itself being a front-runner in AVs, even though driverless cars aren’t yet allowed on roads.

“There is a broad range of possible uses for self-driving vehicles, and we believe they have the potential to improve transport connectivity with significant safety, productivity, and mobility benefits,” the country’s Transport Committee said in a report published Friday. But it also highlighted the need for new laws to replace “archaic” and “limiting” legislation at the moment. 

Given the risk of losing its AV “competitive advantage” in what the Transport Committee hailed to be a “British success story,” the government has been working on crafting regulations by 2025.  

Kendall remains optimistic about the U.K.’s and the company’s path forward.

“The U.K., I think, is in a really great spot to capitalize on this technology,” Kendall told Fortune. “What we’re hearing is the government sees this as a really big growth opportunity and wants to make time for this.” 

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