Embracing intelligent mobility will be crucial to making the UK a world leader in transport, creating a joined-up system that increases productivity; creates environmentally cleaner modes of travel; puts the consumer at the centre of the experience; and can be a vital part of our future economic growth. Yet, despite ticking many of the political boxes in both Whitehall and City Hall, intelligent mobility still needs the proper political framework and backing if it is to properly come to fruition.
Intelligent mobility uses technology and data to connect people, places and goods across all transport modes. It spans drones and driverless cars, to Elon Musk’s famed ‘Hyperloop’, and multimodal transport apps like City Mapper, which provide real-time peak/off peak fares. As well as making sense for quicker and seamless travel, embracing intelligent mobility makes economic sense as well; the intelligent mobility market is predicted to be worth £900 billion by 2025 and will create up to 750,000 jobs in the UK. Over the coming years, the pace of development and disruption within the automotive and transportation sectors will continue to accelerate, so if the UK is to truly benefit from such change, it must embrace it early and wholeheartedly.
The best way for government to do this is to engage with the intelligent mobility sector, and provide the legislative flexibility for the private sector to innovate and experiment. The Government made a landmark example of this in the 2017 Autumn Budget, announcing the Law Commission would create legislation to promote the safe use of driverless cars. By removing the current legal constraints, many of which still apply in mainland Europe and large parts of the US, Philip Hammond will enable the UK to become a world leader in self-driving cars.
Yet, as excellent as this is, it has taken over three years of lobbying from the consortium Oxbotica, alongside heavy pressure from bodies such as the Transport Catapult System, and the automotive private sector. Not all new technologies have the luxury of such resources, wherewithal and corporate support to take on and win such a battle. Therefore, for more intelligent transport solutions to develop and thrive in the UK, the government must be more creative and ambitious across all areas of transportation policy.
As well as creating the legislative framework to experiment with, refine and later adopt such technologies, there is also the political climate to manoeuvre. Whilst it is positive that non-party political bodies such as the National Infrastructure Commission look at long term projects without fear of partisan flip-flopping, many projects, especially in the regions, are used as a political battlefield.
A prime example of this is the struggle around driverless underground trains in London, which are due to be implemented from 2022 onwards, starting on the Piccadilly line. However, earlier this year Labour’s Sadiq Khan, the Mayor of London, branded driverless underground trains as ‘madness’ as, agreeing with the RMT, he argued they would risk the health and safety of Londoners, scrapping the hitherto supportive policies his predecessor, Conservative Boris Johnson, put in place in 2014.
Sensitivity around the adoption of new technologies, especially the interplay between automation and mass redundancy, needs to be addressed by both the private and public sector in collaboration. The national retraining scheme announced in the Autumn Budget is a great start, however the private sector needs to give a level of internal guarantee for retraining and replacement if such companies are to receive more political buy in. If this is not done or not communicated effectively it can result in crisis, as seen with the Northern Rail strike earlier this year and last year following the modernisation of their service, removing conductors. These considerations are also highly important for intelligent mobility to truly lift off the ground – after all, it is workers and constituents that elect MPs; not automated robots and computer systems.
Be it seamless journey systems, vacuum tube transport, autonomous ships and submarines or drone freight, there is so much exciting potential in the intelligent mobility space and if these opportunities are presented in the right way. If seized by the powerholders across the country, with the right legislative space and in a non-partisan manner, a whole sector of the economy can be unlocked and the way we move can be revolutionised.