An integral component of driverless cars, Kevlar, is made by one of Derry's biggest companies, DuPont. Our Business Columnist RYAN WILLIAMS says the city could seize the initiative and become a testing ground for one of the world's newest technologies.

I have taken the tack for some time that if are truly going to be ambitious about how we sell Derry on the global stage we need to think bigger.

As a city of around 100,000 we represent a fantastic living lab for cities worldwide – all types of weather, a mixed topography, and a historic, and fairly compact, city centre.

There is no doubt that the development and imminent arrival of ‘driverless’ vehicles will attract massive and seismic change to societies globally – some of this will be good… and some inevitably will be bad. However it’s no longer a possibility – it a certainty.

When faced with a certainty, the only thing to focus on is how you stay ahead of the impact or alternatively how you farm it to your advantage.

Uber has just done a deal to order 24,000 driverless Volvos for deployment beginning in 2019 – that’s when you know this is inevitable. I think Derry could become the first driverless City in the world. I think we should farm it.

South Korea has already built an 80-acre development called ‘K’ City just 30 miles south of Seoul.

North Korea has had driverless cars for years – Kim Jong-il needed a solution to get from his bath to his living room.

Interestingly, it’s the South Korean government which has built this site to allow technology companies to test their developing products – what a clever sticky magnet to attracting the brightest and best of R & D from across the planet.

Waymo’s, one of Google’s Alphabet companies, has built a 100-acre ‘fake’ city in the Californian desert – this doesn’t even have buildings – just intersections and some traffic cones and the like for that ‘realistic experience’.

Realistic – we would give them realistic! A mountainous climb in the city centre, 400-year-old historic walls to navigate, the small matter of one of the world's most beautiful city-centre waterways, pedestrian zones, urban wastelands – and, if you want traffic cones, avoid the weekend revellers with aforesaid cones on head, Hillybilly’s half-eaten chicken burger in hand, and appropriate lubrication from a variety of purveyors from our Golden Mile. If you want to test a driverless vehicle - that’s a test.


In all sincerity though is it a crazy concept? We are a microcosm of the world. South Korea is currently winding up to deploy Stage 3 driverless vehicles en masse, within the next three years. Level 3, just for reference, is where many of the vehicle tasks are autonomous but a driver is always there to take over. Conversely, a Level 0 is a fully-manual vehicle and a Level 5 is totally autonomous.

We need to skip a step and get to Stage 4-5 as quickly as possible. Is there a role for a 50-year old technology business in the city to play a lead role?

You may have forgotten about Du Pont over the last 50 years. One of the products they make, Kevlar, remains one of the most important potential composite materials in this new world of driverless vehicles – quite apart from the array of additional technologies across this global behemoth.

Could the new Derry City University become one entirely focused on AI and Machine Learning – we already have some leading and trail-blazing movers and shakers in this field in the city. Could our approach to this industry become a force for good? How could it impact on our older and vulnerable populations, getting people to appointments, reducing social isolation, creating a realisable ideal for our younger vibrant students and young people?

If you can see it and touch it, you are just one step away from wanting to be part of something. We know DeLorean wasn’t exactly a massive success story - but that was Belfast – and we know we can do it better. Plus we don’t need to build gold ones. Forward to the Future McFly.

Sometimes to become great at something, you just have to start saying it first. Then believing it. Then doing it. As in the Field of Dreams – ‘Build it and they will come’. Or in this case build it, and they will arrive quietly, and probably in the back seat, as their driverless vehicles silently gently drop them off in the ‘City of New and Innovation’.

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