O2 cuts ribbon on UK's first commercial driverless car lab where it'll blend satellite and 5G signal to stay on the road

Better improve its coverage then

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Mobile network O2, notable for its occasional outages, has opened the UK's first commercial lab for connected, driverless cars.

Coming more than a year after Vodafone and Samsung showed off a driverless car hooning up the famous Goodwood Hillclimb thanks to 5G and a bunch of Galaxy S10 handsets, O2's Darwin Satcom Lab is aimed at trialling driverless cars using the eternally-almost-here mobile technology.

Unlike Voda, whose demo ran on Huawei kit (awkward), O2's tech comes courtesy of Nokia.

The Harwell Campus in Oxfordshire (popular with the UK Space Agency) already features a pair of Renault TWIZY electric vehicles pootling around, and O2 was keen to emphasise the benefit of combining satellite connectivity with 5G to keep things ticking where mobile signal is poor.

A swift look at the 5G coverage for the UK on offer from O2 indicates that "poor mobile signal" equates to "pisspoor over most of the country".

The dreadful driving range of the TWIZY (31-56 miles before it dies, according to Renault) means there is every chance the vehicle might trundle to a halt before getting a chance to sample the low-latency delights of 5G. Luckily, geosynchronous satellites provided by Spanish operator Hispasat are on hand to route the status and location of each TWIZY back to O2's team.

COO Derek McManus was delighted to see the lab's doors opened, talking up the role O2's connectivity would play while companies use the facility to try out driverless tech before it arrives on UK roads.

"It's the next step," he said, "in getting autonomous vehicles on the road and making the UK's transport network greener."

Where one sticks the brains of autonomous vehicles is a matter of contention. While O2 would naturally be delighted to see Connected Autonomous Vehicles (CAVs) hooked up to its network, other companies might prefer to load up their cars with a little more smarts. SUSE, for example, told us of its plans to pop Linux behind the wheel.

SUSE's president of engineering and innovation, Thomas Di Giacomo, warned of the latency issues O2 is seeking to avoid, telling us: "You can't run everything in the cloud."

Project Darwin itself has been rumbling on for a while, with design work kicking off back in July 2019. The first proof of concept was expected in 2020, and here we are.

Back then, UK Business Secretary Greg Clark reckoned the initiative would "bring together two of the UK's great strengths – automotive and space".

We'll draw a veil over the impact the ongoing Brexit wrangling has had on both of those industries.

As for Clark, he was replaced by Andrea Leadsom in 2019 shortly after Project Darwin was announced. Leadsom was then swapped out in favour of Alok Sharma in 2020.

Project Darwin and the Darwin SatCom Lab, however, rumble on. ®

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