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The UK can be the world leader in intelligent mobility

5 min read

Huge change is coming to the transport sector and the UK can be at the forefront – but we must start thinking now about the implications for everything from infrastructure and skills to cyber-security and data protection, writes Iain Stewart

The evolution of “connected and autonomous” and electric vehicles, plus new digital technology on the railways and in the air, will alter profoundly our traditional patterns of motor transport.

On shorter road journeys, for example, we are likely to replace private car trips with a hired autonomous vehicle. That is likely to diminish private car ownership and replace it with MaaS (mobility as a service) in which we purchase a smart package of transport access for all modes.

For longer distance journeys, we shall see vehicles connected in autonomous “road trains” on our motorways and dual carriageways; good for increasing efficient use of road capacity, reducing pollution and liberating the driver’s time.

We may not know the exact timescale for the widespread introduction of this new technology but it is coming. A recent report by the Transport Systems Catapult – based in my home patch of Milton Keynes – anticipates a £900bn global market for Intelligent Mobility by 2025, just seven years from now.

Many cars now have as standard, or as an upgrade option, a wide range of automated “driver assist” functions such as self-parking and adaptive cruise control. Fully connected and autonomous vehicles are a logical development of this technology. Major manufactures are preparing for a major shift to fully electric or hybrid production.

This evolution will affect a wide range of policy areas. Parliament is making a good start with the current Automated and Electric Vehicles Bill, of which I was a committee member. It should return to the House for Report and Third Reading soon. It looks at important issues such as the insurance framework (the current, driver-centric, model will not be appropriate when a machine is fully in charge), and to provide for a national charging point network.

The Committee worked as Parliament should. Parties are agreed on the general principles of the Bill and we had collegiate and constructive discussions on the detail.  For example, we took useful evidence on the need – based on the experiences of Ireland and California – for the government to determine a common payment mechanism for using charge points. Without this, drivers are likely to have to carry a confusing array of payment cards for each company’s charge point.

The Bill is, however, just a starting point. This is not just a transport issue; it touches many other areas of public policy which lie in government departments other than the DfT. A further critical issue is the capacity of the electricity grid and telecom networks to handle the extra demands. Technology will provide many answers but this needs to be considered in lockstep with the roll-out of new vehicles. There is also, for example, the question of how to provide car charging facilities to the large minority of homes (such flats and terraced houses) which do not have off-street parking.

Cyber-security is another consideration. We have already seen worrying examples of cars being hacked and industry is concerned about the potential vulnerability.

Data privacy concerns will also have to be considered. The data collected from these vehicles can and should be used for benign and useful reasons; such as to help to plan efficiently road and parking layouts. But could the data be individualised and allow an individual’s movements to be more widely known? Where will the boundaries of data ownership and privacy lie and is the current law fit for purpose?

Then there are skills implications. Many current human jobs in road transport will be replaced by machines. Car repairs and maintenance will increasingly require more electrical and software skills than mechanical ones. And do we have sufficient engineers skilled to take advantage of the economic opportunities in the growing Intelligent Mobility market?

The UK has a golden opportunity to be a world leader in the space. To seize it, we must address these issues.

Development of digital technology will also have huge implications for increasing the efficiency and capacity of our railways and airspace management. This is not new technology. We already have automatically-run trains in the UK (the Victoria Line has been for nearly 50 years!) but these have been on closed networks operating only one type of rolling stock. The potential exists for such a system to be introduced across the network, and Network Rail is developing a digital railway programme. Similarly, NATS is developing a digital airspace modernisation programme and the expansion of London City airport will see the traditional ATC replaced by a virtual control run from NATS headquarters near Southampton.

These developments too have implications. How, for example, will the Unions react to the changing workforce requirements? Does the current the current industrial dispute over the introduction of driver-only trains give us a taste of wider resistance?

And that’s before we consider the even more disruptive technology of innovations such a passenger drones; no longer the product of science fiction but a choice legislators will have to make sooner rather than later.

Change is coming and there is a huge opportunity for this country to lead it. While there is no shortage of immediate, pressing domestic and international issues to deal with, I hope that the bandwith of government and Parliament allows us to realise this potential.


Iain Stewart is MP for Milton Keynes South. He is a member of the Transport Select Committee and Chairs the Smart Cities and Future of Transport APPGs 



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