George Economides: ‘Not many councils are like this’

27th September 2018

Sarah Rees headshot

Sarah Rees

Oxfordshire County Council (OCC) is one of a rare breed. As many UK councils struggle to provide the basic services within their budgets, OCC is looking beyond, exploring emerging technologies to ensure new innovations – such as driverless cars – are being developed with the people in mind.

“Not many councils are like this,” admits George Economides, whose role as Connected Autonomous Vehicles (CAV) Lead only exists because the Council is forward thinking. “I have been very fortunate to find this opportunity.”

OCC is the first council in the UK to include CAVs in their transport policy. George and his team – funded externally but sitting within OCC – are focused on equitable adoption, taking part in collaborative projects to discover how best to optimise these vehicles’ application to meet the existing and future needs of the county. One of these projects is DRIVEN, working with a consortium that includes Nominet to trial level 4 autonomous cars on routes between Oxford and London.

“The council own the roads and are the emergency services authority, so we know we can have a real impact in accelerating CAV adoption,” George explains. “And there is a risk that if we don’t get involved, industry will just tailor autonomous vehicles to the premium market needs. We want a model and approach that promotes equitable adoption and works for everyone while being economically viable and business friendly.”

Despite clear intentions, the unknowns are many, as George explains: “We need a thorough understanding of safety; when is it safe to put the car on the road, and how do you monitor it once it’s there? We also need to create a protocol for communication between traffic management and cars, and this also needs to work in tandem with other Local Authorities. Theoretically there are county boundaries, but we need to know what’s coming in and share what’s going out.”

The team’s thinking is also being challenged by new research and developments emerging from the other CAV explorations around the world: “Research from Waymo shows that the most dangerous moment is when there is a handover from machine to human, as the human needs to reorient themselves. If they are travelling fast on a motorway, a few seconds are very important. If we could find out a handover is about to take place, how might we make other vehicles around the car aware of the risk? Although that is an ‘if’. We can’t yet know how much data we will be able to access.”

There are many ‘if’s in the exploration of emerging technologies, but George is unperturbed. “I used to study quantum mechanics, so this seems quite down-to-earth,” he says. Indeed, this is just the sort of ‘grounded’ challenge the Greek scientist was looking for after years cocooned within the University of Oxford, first as an undergraduate and then while completing his doctorate.

“Spending about a decade in the university thinking about extraordinary, rare phenomena made me feel ‘out of world’ and out of touch with every-day reality,” he admits. “I’ve always been fascinated by technology. It’s satisfying to now work within this sector and use it to help deliver a better standard of public life. It’s a simple as that for me.”

Serving others had been one of the things missing from his academic career. He was initially broken out of the educational reverie by the economic catastrophe that befell his home country in 2010. “I spent five years in a lab while the Greek economy was going down the drain,” he recalls sadly. “I wanted to feel more involved and do something to help my country.”

He set up a company that promoted Greek exports, which has now expanded to include the EU as well as domestic markets. It continues to be George’s hobby, taking a more central role in his free time since a knee injury kept from his initial love; ballroom dancing.

“I used to dance 13 hours a week, so it was hard when I had to stop,” he says. “But the injury has just given me more time to work on other things, such as my business.” He is also enmeshed in Oxford life, dining out with friends and following the local example of surviving without a car, which makes his professional occupation more crucial.

“I have a vested interest in my work,” he admits, “driverless cars would help me get around.” But George is keen not to overlook the potential such technology has for those who, unlike him, live in rural areas where the need for accessibility and road safety is greater.

“Certainly, driverless vehicles would ease congestion in the urban areas, but for rural areas they would allow people to get to hospitals, or jobs. That’s why we must focus on holistic adoption and think beyond urban hotspots for this technology. We have the opportunity to make a real difference to people’s lives.”

Read more about DRIVEN and Nominet’s involvement here.