The future of transport – utopia or dystopia?

Executive Director
London

I recently spoke at the FT Future of Transport event in London, with over 200 people from the transport industry in attendance. Peter Campbell, the motor industry correspondent for the FT, opened the event by addressing the huge change the industry is experiencing, digitization being the biggest part of it.

He posed questions to the audience; do we really need to live where we work? Who owns the services and who controls the data? How will business models change? Finishing with a warning, “some will get it wrong, and it will cost them dearly.”

The event followed the themes of data, cities, people, and business – but a recurring theme was whether the future of transport was a utopia or dystopia? So how did the day play out?

Setting the scene with Ford

Steven Armstrong, the GVP of Ford Europe kickstarted the conference and covered the themes with a tight focus on data and how it can be used to help a city and increase safety. He discussed a 12-month trial Ford ran with 160 connected light commercial vehicles – summarized in this video – concluding that you can’t predict the future, but the data helps cities and businesses understand where to make changes. Armstrong talked of Ford wanting to partner and work with cities, which makes sense as data from London would not be transferred to Sao Paolo, for example, so there is much work to be done.

To address the “who owns the services/data?” question, it seems Ford wants to be part of that equation. Armstrong discussed working with the National Association of City and Transport Officials and the Open Transport Partnership to create a shared streets initiative: open platform, open data, working in the cloud, and aiming to bring many partners in. Clearly, one company can’t manage the entire thing – there needs to be partners, cities and towns working together.

The issues begin to surface

Transport Systems Catapult, Innovate UK, and Virgin Hyperloop One joined Campbell on a panel to discuss envisioning the new mobility ecosystem. To witness the contrast of Transport Systems Catapult and Virgin Hyperloop One made for an interesting panel with Harj Dhaliwal of the latter stating that autonomous vehicles will take us to a hyperloop within ten years and Paul Campion of the former contrasting with, “I love the toys, but they will not make a difference in our career lifetime.” The point here is that technological innovations can sometimes be at complete loggerheads with existing infrastructure – and sometimes the futures they seek are very different.

When discussing who owns the services/data, Campion went on to say “I’m less worried about who runs it than who benefits. Was it Facebook who said move fast and break things? We all thought that was great until the thing they broke was democracy. What’s the world you want for you and your children?”

It’s here that the issues became clear, and it’s a recurring theme across the spectrum of digital transformation. To solve for one party is to solve for one party and when you’re talking about transports and cities, there are plenty of parties involved. Looking at solutions through the lenses of different needs can indeed create a utopia or a dystopia. “A utopia”, as one speaker said, “is a world without parking. Using that public space to reimagine how a city functions. A dystopia is a city or even country that’s gridlocked by vehicles that are driving at six miles an hour and eight inches apart.” One can imagine Amazon logos on vans in the dystopia – but who is designing for the utopia and are these people working together?

Was it Facebook who said move fast and break things? We all thought that was great until the thing they broke was democracy. What’s the world you want for you and your children?”

Paul Campion
Chief Executive, Transport Systems Catapult

A need for speed?

Much of the day was centered about time and speed. Many celebrated how we’ll save time because everything is quicker and more efficient. But “does everything need to be faster?” asked Peter Campbell. Hyperloop would say yes. They have reduced a four-hour journey from Mumbai to Pune to 25 minutes. But what about those who like to read a book and travel – will these people disappear? Or will we, as one person coined, all be “working from roam”?

Virgin Galactic has taken the speed factor even further, they wowed the audience with an awe-inspiring video about their space travel experience – but will what is learned from this mean that London to Sydney can be done in achieved in two hours?

Campion summed it up quite well with the comment, “HS2 is being built because we need more routes… it isn’t really about speed. We chose the faster option because we have a slow one.” I took from that, if there’s a need to make it faster and easier, then do it, but not just because we can. He continued to say, “it doesn’t matter who pays for it… we just need to agree together to decide what solution is better for us.”

Bringing it all together

In an FT-led panel about urban mobility, there were speakers from the Department for Transport, TfL, Ridecell, and ITS Finland. ITS Finland stole the show a few times during this conference but particularly during this panel where they could discuss at length how they deregulated transport to enable a Mobility-as-a-Service (MaaS) operator layer to connect all the transport modes across Helsinki (all of them – even taxis). Quite an operational challenge which seems to be paying off. This tied it back to the shared streets initiative, certainly in terms of approach, mentioned at the start of the day. Perhaps we’re on to something.

Public and private sectors working together are key to this approach – I questioned the ability of the UK undertaking such a project as MaaS in Finland. But someone on the overcoming barriers to progress panel later in the day (which included the Department for Transport, Transport Select Committee, Stagecoach Group, and Rolls Royce) quite rightly mentioned that “TfL got rid of its ticket offices without any great fuss – sometimes these things are not as complicated as you think.”

Read more: How design can pave the road towards a new personal mobility discussing the public and private sector working together.

People and parcels

To show the breadth of the industry that “transport” as a word covers, we also heard from EasyJet (using AI and machine learning to become more efficient), What3Words (now available in car), Dubai Airport (quite technologically fancy – as you can imagine) and the Minister of State for Transport (for how long I wonder?) but it was interesting that the question of goods/parcels only came up in the questions from the audience.

Moving goods is as much a transport conundrum as moving people, and I tried to address this in my talk Your convenience is choking us which addressed both sides of the spectrum and encouraged attendees to consider the city, its inhabitants and the authorities and businesses that run it when designing mobility solutions.

Read more: Smart Design’s article on moving people
Read more: Smart Design’s article on moving parcels

In conclusion, the themes of data, cities, people, and business are important – but the real importance is in how they intersect and interact with each other. This theme recurred throughout the entire day. Considering every part of a city is important in any future of transport innovation project, they are all reliant on each other. And whether or not that happens really will mean the difference between a utopian or a dystopian future.

Are you part of creating the future of mobility? Our Smart Mobility team would love to hear from you. Say hello to Louise.