This small British success story is taking on ‘big auto’

I had a near miss in the car this week.

It’s hard to believe how we avoided each other, really. I was doing a steady 40 when he came flying out of a side road without stopping and went straight across the junction. I had no time to react. A couple of inches came between us and a wreck.

But thankfully this happened in the open space of an airfield – and the car that nearly hit me was a ‘soft target vehicle’ made of foam rubber and driven by a robot!

I was experiencing first-hand the safety systems known as Adas – advanced driver assistance systems. Wiltshire-based AB Dynamics (ABDP) makes the Adas robots that gave me my white-knuckle ride.

I wrote about the company last year as a small British success story in the big world of automotive engineering. It supplies advanced testing systems to the motor industry, for research and development and quality control.

This is could be a huge growth area within the industry. That’s why I jumped at the chance to visit ADB’s factory and see its products tested at a nearby airfield.

Here’s what I found.

Adas systems – from luxury to everyday

The Adas systems I saw during my visit are already in the market, but mostly in luxury cars. They’re used for:

1) Collision avoidance

By detecting when you are too close to the car in front, Adas can help to avoid collisions. It does this by interpreting information from radar and cameras, and will warn the dozy driver if there’s danger. Emergency braking is applied if those warnings are ignored and a crash seems unavoidable. And if contact can’t be avoided, the reduced speed means that the possible smash turns into just a shunt.

It’s not just automatic braking. There’s also adaptive cruise-control to maintain a set distance between your car and the vehicle in front. And if you’re losing concentration and drifting outside your lane, a safety system will detect this and give you a warning.

2) Saving billions

As well as saving your life, Adas could also reduce your insurance premium.

It’s now got support from governments and auto manufacturers, who’ve funded ‘new car assessment programmes’ around the world that test the safety of new car models and speed up the adoption of innovative safety features provided by Adas systems.

In time these systems will be fitted to most cars, not just high-end luxury models.

All this technology exists today. But it needs extensive testing to make it deploy accurately and consistently.

That’s where the robots come in

This need for testing is the core of ABD’s business.

It provides driving robots, the so-called ‘soft targets’ that I just missed on the airfield, and large lab-based machines to test suspension and handling.

Robot drivers carry out testing because these programmes require the same routine to be carried out thousands of times. Even the most skilled humans can’t match the accuracy of the robot in following a GPS-guided course over and over again for hours on end. The robot never gets tired and keeps to within a couple of centimetres of the route every time.

They also don’t mind doing unpleasant or dangerous things. I experienced a couple of automatic emergency stops out on the airfield; it was exciting at first, but my stomach wouldn’t be able to take too much more of it.

But a robot will do an identical stop, time and again, for as long as you want it to.

And as testing gets more sophisticated, the size of these packages and upgrades sold by ABD has increased. And while the company already counts all of the top twenty car manufacturers as customers, there’s one market that could really boost growth.

If this company breaks into China

Germany leads the way in terms of Adas technology, which you’d probably expect. But in a sign of things to come, China is becoming an increasingly important market.

Chinese manufacturers are aiming to get up the knowledge curve and design cars that the international market, and not just local customers, will be interested in buying.

ABD is a genuine niche business focusing on a growing part of a huge industry that could pay dividends for a specialist company. I expect its growth to be solid rather than spectacular; but with additional capacity in the future and plenty of engineering expertise to develop new ideas, it’s a stock well worth a look.

Let’s keep an eye on it and see how it plays out.

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