InterviewsWe talk StreetDrone, Formula E & One with Mark...

We talk StreetDrone, Formula E & One with Mark Preston


We meet Mark and discuss with him about StreetDrone, his career and what he sees as the future of Formula E and Formula One.

Brendan: Today we are here to talk about StreetDrone One. Autonomous cars are beginning to gather speed in the motor industry with giants like Tesla trialling different methods, and technology like XenoLidar being developed. Now as we know the progress in this field is quite slow due to the lack of skilled engineers. So, what made you think of StreetDrone and training engineering students how to work with autonomous vehicles?

Mark: It started because a couple of people approached us about a mechanical platform basically. Imagine you’re in the computer science department of a university and don’t really know about cars, but you know a lot about robotics or image recognition and those kinds of things. You don’t want to play around with thinking about how hard do we have to press the brakes to get the right amount of deceleration or how do we deal with all the 12v systems which power the computers and backup systems, you just want to do computer science stuff, but on a car. We have come across a few people that have asked us about it and it was really a demand in the end. People ask about autonomous cars and a base vehicle. You could use a Ford Fusion or a Lexus like Apple but these are quite complicated because they have systems like A/C and all this stuff makes it difficult to just work on the autonomous aspect.

Brendan: Why choose Renault as your partner in this venture, and what particularly made you choose a Renault Twizy?
– Its not a conventional car in terms of its tandem setup and lack of mod-cons. Why not a Renault Zoe or a Nissan Leaf, cars which are relatively common on the road in terms of EVs? – Is there something that makes working with the Twizy easier than working with the other two?

Mark: What’s great about the car we are using is it is quite basic. Its modular, whereas a lot of modern cars are unibody, made from one structure. Whereas the Twizy has a spaceframe, and its built by RenaultSport so it’s kind of like a little race car. It’s got four-wheel independent suspension and its inexpensive. One of the main reasons for the Twizy was for its price it is very modular and this means that we can put different bodywork on it to make it the StreetDrone and its easy to modify. As a test prototype vehicle, it seemed like the right car to use, especially for research and development. It will be very similar the Tesla setup, 7 cameras and a radar, not LiDar as that would be too expensive for the base vehicle. Its good value for money, its small, it’s very modular and above all its electric which is easy to control.

Brendan: As well as looking at Autonomy, are you going to be looking at increasing range and making the car more practical for long-term usage? The Twizy has quite a short range compared to other electric cars out there, such as the Renault Zoe, Nissan Leaf and the Teslas.

Mark: In Formula E what we are finding, is that the strategy that we use in the races is potentially movable to the real world. For example, in Formula E, when the driver is going down the straight, we (the team) have predetermined the optimal way of using energy around the lap. When he closes to the end of the straight, speed is where you burn the most of that energy. So, at some point down the straight he gets a beep in his ear which tells him to lift off. He will get another beep where we think he should brake, so it’s basically predicting the best way of using that energy, the best time to try and regen. Theoretically some of that work could be moved to the real world let’s say. In an autonomous car, we would just program that in. You would say there is no point in accelerating hard away from a bus stop if you were a bus driver, you would be able to work out the exact strategy for how to drive a bus for the optimal performance. We may get to a level of semi-autonomy where the bus driver just steers. Let’s say a passenger presses the button to stop the bus, the bus would automatically know where the next bus stop is and would then calculate whether it needs to brake, coast and whether it would be able to regenerate.

Brendan: As is stated all over the web, and even on your own website, developing autonomous vehicles is an extremely expensive exercise. What you are trying to do is make this technology cheaper and more accessible to vehicle brands, and consumers like the common man. How do you intend to do this when companies like Google, Apple, Intel have pretty much cornered the market?

Mark: Its really about building the ecosystems, so it’s the same as Linux for example. We are most likely to head down the route of open-sourcing as such where we have a couple of hundred universities which all have the same car but are all in different countries and departments. Not just robotics departments, let’s say computer vision department, computer science, mechanical engineering. Different people working on it. Most people would say that open-sourcing has become mainstream and if you look at something like Android, it is built on Linux anyway. We think there will be an environment where there might be a proprietary winner in the world, which might be a bit like Apple who are an end to end winner. There will never be just one competitor.

Brendan: With companies such as Tesla who are aiming for the launch of their Model 3 to be the mass produced autonomous vehicle, where does StreetDrone stand in relation to this? Is the company aiming for a mass market product at this moment in time?

Mark: When looking at Tesla I reckon the market is moving faster than them. I think they were right a couple of years ago when they were looking at EVs but now I think autonomy has sped up and they didn’t expect it. Now they’re trying to catch up and I think they thought autonomy was a few years away and that their next plan would have been to do something like a Tesla minibus and get into the world of mass transport with things like Uber, but we have already jumped ahead of that. Now I think Tesla is going “oh my god, autonomy is moving faster than we are” and I wouldn’t be surprised if he (Elon Musk) changes strategy again soon to something else. I’m not really worried about him because I think the market is moving much faster than him.

Elon Musk and the Tesla Model S

One possibility if you take the logical steps towards the future is the Mobox Foundation, based in Oxford, is looking at the future of mass transport like a minibus and is completely autonomous. When you analyse transport in a city like Oxford, which is very old, there is no more capacity. So, you have a limit on capacity and the only way you can do it is to put people into an optimally sized vehicle and have it running 24/7. One thing we learned in London is you don’t need timetables when the time between trains is less than 5 minutes. You go down to the underground and you know the next train is going to be in two minutes. So, we think there is a time in the future where if you have autonomous vehicles running 24/7, fully on demand the need for cars will be less. Theoretically we think, that the world is moving faster than them, but we will have to see. It’s possible. I think the biggest thing that is stopping it (mass market autonomy) is if you look at the installed capital infrastructure of every car manufacturer in the world, that’s a lot of money and I don’t think there is enough money in the world to switch over every car in the next 10 years or so.

Brendan: Tesla have just launched their new car, the Model 3 and with it they offer the Enhanced Autopilot pack to their customers for $5000 which enable a myriad of options such as self parking, lane guidance etc, and for an additional $3000 they offer to equip the full self-driving mode making it $8000 before the car is autonomous. Would you say this was expensive for what’s being offered?

Mark: From what I know, it’s not even fully autonomous. What we have been able to find out about it is that it has a similar set up to StreetDrone, 7 cameras, and a Radar. We think that is enough to do autonomy but my feeling is that they have done that and because they can do annual updates, they know that if they crack it at some point then they will have this installed userbase of car owners. I don’t know if the cars are recording data and sending anything back and Tesla are using it as an experiment. The self-parking bit is quite doable isn’t it. Active Cruise Control is again easy because all it is doing is using Radar to measure the distance to the next car. Driving on a motorway is not difficult and it wouldn’t be hard work for a university student to write that kind of software using one of our cars. The students could write programs which would be able to see street signs for example and it’s not very difficult and it is becoming pretty run of the mill. I think there are a lot of Tesla fans and they know that the fans will probably pay for the packs and as updates come they will be able to do more and more over time.

Brendan: One of the features of the StreetDrone One is a launchable drone from the roof. How exactly would this work?

Mark: That idea came from some guys working in agriculture because they said that when they’re working on big farms, they lose line of sight to the mobile masts and data infrastructure. So the idea came about having a little mobile drone that sit on top of the tractor that takes off if you need to get line of sight to a base unit.

Brendan: What can you tell me about other features of the car which enable it to be fully autonomous?

Mark: The car is drive by wire so the brakes and power steering are all controlled by the computer system. We also look at things that like how fast the car will decelerate and we are able to ask this of the car and get an exact reading depending on the environment. The car will have a certain amount of awareness as to being able to know that the battery is getting too hot, or how much range there is, or how fast it can accelerate and decelerate and all of its capability. The car will be able to know when to use something like “eco mode” and will try and get the best out of what it knows.

Brendan: Looking at autonomy, it has been explored in Hollywood in the last 10-15 years with movies such as Demolition Man and I-Robot which was one of the biggest ones. Is that what you see for the future of autonomy?

Mark: One of the best ones I saw recently was Logan with the autonomous trucks and in the latest Fast and Furious movie, where the hacker uses the car against them.

Brendan: You saying about the hacker using the car against them, it was only a few months ago athat a couple of people were able to hack the onboard computer on a Jeep and Fiat-Chrysler came under severe fire because of it.

Mark: The networks on a car runs on a CAN-bus which is technology from the 80s and people in the security field are talking to us about trusted networks. Its looking at things such as knowing that something as simple as a temperature sensor isn’t lying to the driver, which is how someone hacked into one of the cars. It’s like looking at a kettle in someone’s house, and telling it that the water is only at ambient temperature, even though it might be boiling. The kettle would then boil itself dry and eventually it causes a fire. These are issues that are going to be brought up with regards to network security. Because it was never foreseen that cars would actively be on the internet, a lot of the work we are going to be doing may not be with AI, but rather with trusted networks.

Brendan: What about closed networks? A lot of office complexes can’t be accessed without an access key or prior permission.

Mark: Stuxnet virus was a program which was infiltrated the Iranian Nuclear facility while everything was offline and was done by someone using a USB memory stick and its these kinds of things that show that no network is ever safe. For example, when you plug a car in to charge there is a bit of communication between the car and the charger and that could leave the car open. Some cars have Wi-Fi and hotspots and soon I don’t think you’ll be able to find a car which isn’t hackable. If you know how a digital radio works you might be able to tell it to do something and then it could open itself up.

Brendan: It states on your webpage that the vehicle is fully connected to a smartphone or tablet through Bluetooth and/or Wi-Fi, what is the importance of this?

Mark: This is mostly to do with control and visualisation of data. When we said about the sign recognition and the person in the back seat can see what the car is seeing. Its more for research and development and some of the people that have been working on the car have been working on the control systems with an iPad.

Brendan: One of the thoughts I had went back to the Tesla Model 3, which has no key, no fob or anything, but instead uses your phone’s Bluetooth as the way of locking/unlocking and starting the car.

Mark: No, because the car is for R&D it will have a hard key, it will have a hard start/stop button. This is also something that we need to have access to because the car is a research tool and so we need to know how it all works.

Brendan: How do all the interconnected systems work in sync? How does one not override another? With systems such as a 360 camera, lasers and stereo cameras which all integrate with a smartphone app, couldn’t this be confusing for the layman?

Mark: The trick is to keep it all very modular. Basically, one system does the drive by wire and another is the brains of the car itself. We call that the mechatronic package and basically that means computers with hardware. Its job is checking these different systems. We also have an NVidea system which will control the AI and all the sensory equipment so this will be separate to the mechatronic package which also controls the GPS. One of the things we first looked at in the car was having enough 12v supply to run a laptop so we could work with the sensors and in the future, we will have a separate power supply.

Brendan: Mark, you have made a successful career in the motorsport world, working previously with McLaren, Super Aguri, among others in Formula 1, and now with Formula E team, Techeetah.  However, they are vastly different in terms of their mechanics. Formula 1 using conventional powerplants to gain high speeds and the other using relatively new electric powerplants. Add to that the bonus of spectator interaction with FanBoost, they are vastly different worlds.  What was your inspiration to move from a sport which garners a lot of publicity, sponsorship and competition, to a sport which is comparatively unheard of?

Mark: Weirdly in Formula 1 it was getting a bit boring. As a technical person in Formula 1 there is an amount of innovation and for me it was something called process innovation. Your tweaking out the last little bit of aero, power, all the tiny little variables. You don’t see fan cars anymore. I can’t really think of any big innovation in Formula 1 recently. There was the breakthrough in the fuel consumption, where they are now saving something like 40% of fuel compared to before, but that’s not something anyone really thinks about. There is also only so far you can go and some people say the most exciting racing you see these days is Formula Ford and Go-Karting because there is big competition there.

What I like about Formula E is that it’s unknown. I remember in my first year talking to one of the suppliers of batteries and asking, “how does this thing work?” and him replying “I don’t know, you guys figure it out” and so it was something new. We are learning a lot now. I think Formula E is quite competitive and of course I am a bit biased.

Photo: Dan Bathie – Spacesuit Media

Brendan: There are names I recognise from Formula 1 in the lineup of Formula E such as Heidfeld and Buemi,

Mark: Nick Heidfeld is one of the names in Formula E and Jean-Eric Vergne is one of our guys, he used to race for Toro Rosso. I think it’s more about the challenge and being at the forefront of something new and as you have seen all the car companies are coming to Formula E. Audi, Porsche, Mercedes-Benz. I think the competition seems to have gone and one problem is, and we (Formula E) must be careful of this, is if Mercedes are spending in the region of $400 million in Formula 1, there is a lot of risk in that and so everything has to be perfect and everything has to right otherwise you’re putting that at risk. There is a lot of vested interest into keeping everything the same when you put that amount of money into something. Whereas in Formula E our budgets are less than 1/10th of the budgets in Formula 1. There is less at stake in terms of something going wrong and as such you make different decisions.

Brendan: Do you think that is a factor in Formula 1 because they (the manufacturers) don’t want to damage or lose that investment, through destroying the car or similar.

Mark: I think it is too much and they don’t want to go too far off the beaten track, whereas when your budget is $10 or 20 million you can experiment a bit more because there is not as much at stake. We can experiment with the way the race works and things like the FanBoost and experiment without as many problems.

Brendan: Techeetah, the team you work for currently as Team Principal, had a fantastic end to the season this year with their first win. Your team also gained 10 SuperPoles and 7 Podium places so you must be proud of the accomplishments of your team. What do you see next on the horizon for Techeetah?

Mark: I think it’s quite simple. To have more wins, we need more pole positions and although we have got into SuperPole a lot we haven’t been able to turn that into a pole position. What’s interesting about Formula E is that there is a lottery, everyone gets 2 laps, a warm up and a fast lap. In SuperPole you get 1 lap and we haven’t been able to turn that into a Pole. So, we still have a problem going from the laps where we get a warm up where we can quite easily get into the Pole, but we haven’t been able to keep that in a SuperPole. Normally if you get Pole Position you can lead from the front and you should be able to win the race. So basically we need to get more Pole Positions and turning them into wins. We have been able to get provisional Pole and then go into the SuperPole and that’s where we lose out. Over the winter break we are working on what’s been going wrong, what do we need to figure out so we can gain the Pole Positions.

Brendan: Obviously in Formula 1 there is a need to keep the tyres warm but in Formula E the pace is much slower. Is retaining heat in the tyres as important?

Mark: Not particularly. Its more about the brakes. We don’t have brake ducts which means that the stabilisation of the brake temperature is very difficult. If you overheat one of the brakes then what happens is that the carbon brakes get somewhere in the range of 400 degrees, then it can be very hard for the driver to predict. So, on a warm up lap you can get all the brake temps up, but the cars are unstable because of the brakes so we discussed about whether we should do something about that and decided that we shouldn’t because it makes the whole thing much more challenging and makes a better competition. The cars are just perfect.

In formula 1 the cars are perfect because everything works perfectly and everything is balanced perfectly, whereas our cars are way too heavy at the rear and the tyres are not good enough on the tyre walls. They’re street tyres rather than race tyres, they’re low profile tyres compared to Formula 1 which have bigger tyres. The Formula E cars are not perfect and that makes them harder to drive and I think that is a good thing. We discussed brake bias and one of the suggestions was “make that electronic so it works better” and we questioned that. They claimed it would make it safer and we said that it is not unsafe, everyone knows how to work brake bias, it’s just difficult to turn the knob. We had another discussion about Formula 1 and their perfect cars and we said why make it perfect, why not leave it as it is and everyone agreed. The drivers aren’t complaining and although yes, it is difficult to sort brake bias, that’s another challenge for the drivers. Also making the perfect car means there is less competition. Well that’s what I think anyway.

Brendan: Having worked in Formula 1 and now Formula E where do you see the future of Formula 1? In your opinion do you consider it to be a dying breed with the advent of more development in alternative energy/drive systems, such as EVs?

Mark: I think that electrification is certain of powertrains, but the energy carrier is not. So, what they call the energy carrier is batteries, fuel as an energy carrier.

Vauxhall Ampera Hybrid…

Brendan: You say about that, it that reminds me of the Vauxhall Ampera hybrid, which although had a normal petrol engine, it was used to generate power for the electric drive systems rather than power the car itself.

Mark: I think, rather like diesel/electric trains the powertrain is electric, but the way that the energy is stored and delivered comes from fuel, running at optimum RPM for the power creation. So, I think the energy carrier is still not decided and I think the future is electric powertrains but maybe different energy carriers. I don’t know what that means for the future, or how that will play out, whether Formula 1 will use electric powertrains with gen-sets on board coming from petrol, whatever is the right thing for them. Or whether it becomes a hydrogen energy carrier, I don’t know what is the end-game.

You could have discussions about wireless charging in the roads and not have to have a battery on board. You could go back to old technology like trolley cars, like trams, because trams are just electric powertrains with wires overhead. There are more and more cities going back to trams and I don’t know quite where the future lies. Formula 1 has got a very large userbase and they should be able to build on that and they are. The new owners are pushing it back towards free-to-air tv and they need to bring the costs down so there isn’t as much at stake. A few years ago, I worked on the cost-capping stuff with the FIA and the target was bringing the budgets down from 400 million to 100 million, which is still a lot of money. They travel around the world so a lot of the money goes into transportation. I don’t know what the future is but they have a good userbase and the new owners are going to do a good job.

Mark Preston

Brendan: Comparing Formula1 and Formula E again, your fanbase in Formula E has increased year on year and Formula 1 fanbase has decreased year on year. Do you think Formula E is starting to poach fans from Formula 1?

Mark: Anecdotally I think the fanbase is younger with Formula E, its way more accessible because it is in cities. One guy in a shop said to me “we are going to go to the London race because we can catch the bus down there, it’s in the park and our parents know where we are going.” Whereas at Silverstone you must try and get there somehow and find somewhere to stay and it can be mayhem. I’m from Melbourne and when the Formula 1 is there it is much easier because you just get on the tram and people are encouraged not to drive there and it is way more accessible. The same is true with Formula E, when we were in Montreal we were right in the centre of the city. When we were in NYC you could catch a ferry across from Manhatten and the train stations weren’t far away. Paris you’re right in the centre of Paris. Formula 1 would certainly be jealous of that, but you couldn’t drive a Formula 1 car around our tracks and so our cars may not become much quicker than they currently are. We don’t have real downforce and it is a lot different to Formula 1.

StreetDrone are an Oxford based company, headed by Founder Mark Preston, who is also the Founder of Preston EV. Mark has had a varied career in the motorsport industry, working previously for McLaren Racing in Formula 1 and Super Aguri, and now in Formula E as Team Principal for Techeetah.

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