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Transport revolutions

First: a Happy New Year to all readers. How 2016 will shape up is anyone’s guess, with ‘experts’ being no more likely to call things correctly than the rest of us mere mortals. However, we can be certain that many of the same issues will continue to form the backdrop to our lives; we just don’t know quite how and to what extent other unknown factors may disrupt things.

Putting aside matters economic, political and social, which are beyond the scope of this newsletter, we will all continue to depend on secure supplies of energy and food. Most of us also take for granted the fact that we are no longer constrained to spend our lives within narrow geographical limits. Whether physically or via the digital world, much of what we do takes place outside our home.  

But it has not always been so. Until the advent of railways in the early 19th Century, most of our ancestors lived and worked close to where they had been born. Longer journeys, of the sort we would think nothing of today for a week’s holiday, would have been effectively a permanent move. And even trains only linked places on predefined routes. Personalised travel only became a reality for the majority of the population with mass car ownership in the latter half of last century.

Like most things, travel is something we would find hard to do without now that it is available to us, and society has developed in ways which assume easy mobility. This, of course, comes with its own problems, such as congestion, accidents and air pollution in urban areas. None of these, however, should be insoluble.

Some critics of private car use see better public transport as the answer. In urban areas, this is almost certainly a large part of the solution. But others see the internal combustion engine as the villain. By their reckoning, conversion of the car fleet to run on electricity (or, a more remote possibility, hydrogen) would be the answer not just for urban pollution but also to the contribution of the transport sector to carbon dioxide emissions.

There is a kernel of truth in both these approaches. In cities, the population density and journey lengths are such that a combination of buses, trams, underground or elevated railways and taxis can get most people from A to B much more efficiently than trying to cram the streets with private cars.

But for rural areas, even for villages just a few miles from a large town, public just don’t fit the bill. Trains are fine for the relatively few places they serve, but are certainly not a panacea. Running a fast, high frequency bus service to compete with private transport becomes ruinously expensive with very low occupancy rates, while running an infrequent service over convoluted routes to serve communities affordably means they are used only by the minority of people who don’t have a car available.

For longer journeys, the situation is hardly better. Taking the train from A to B may work well if A and B are major cities, but a journey from A to C or C to D may involve multiple changes and take far longer than using a car.

Most of the currently proposed solutions address only part of the overall issue of enabling people to live in one place while working, shopping or visiting elsewhere. So, the focus on electric vehicles may reduce pollution, but it certainly won’t reduce congestion. Despite this, drivers of low-emissions vehicles are exempt from the London ‘congestion’ charge. And while hybrid vehicles may use battery power for short journeys, over longer distances their emissions are no better than efficient modern petrol- and diesel-engined cars.

There is a need to address broader questions than simply how to reduce the numbers of cars on the road or make them cleaner. Reinterpreting the problem in terms of getting people between any two points quickly, affordably and at a time of their choosing would be more productive in the longer term. An alternative would be to consider how best to maximise the number of people moving freely along the road system.

In neither case does the solution lie in either making private cars cleaner or putting more buses on the road. In fact, the answers are most likely to come from the world of IT than engineering. Already, the annual Consumer Electronics Show, currently being held in Las Vegas, is a major event for car manufacturers to demonstrate their new technology. At the major motor shows, new models are launched, but there is at least as much attention given to the technology in the concept cars at CES. What’s behind the dashboard is becoming as important as what’s under the bonnet.

This year, for example, we see the new company Faraday Future showing an all-electric sports car which is built on a modular platform suitable for making a range of other vehicles as well (CES 2016: Faraday Future shows off its concept car). IT systems are, of course, completely integrated into the concept. But mainstream manufacturers are following a similar path (eg, CES 2016: Ford details hi-tech cars, but without Google). Integration of operating systems which allow users to control smart devices at home, for example, seems to be the next step beyond touchscreen control of car functions.

But these are evolutionary changes which make no difference to how we use cars. We can get hints of the sorts of disruption which can trigger revolutionary change when we look, for example, at Uber. While certainly not a game-changer (except for conventional taxi services) it uses IT to match supply and demand in what looks like an efficient and popular way. Similarly, in urban areas, car clubs can provide access to cars for short-term use without the need for ownership, arguably reducing overall demand for road space to a small degree.

The next big thing – and something which really could revolutionise transport – will be autonomous cars. Already, Google and others have made great strides and it is now possible to conceive of vehicles which need no human intervention. By avoiding accidents (although there is no guarantee that the algorithms would be fool proof, at least in the early days) major congestion could be significantly eased. By maintaining safe distances and speeds, road capacity could be increased while allowing traffic to flow freely.

But the real prize would be to have a country-wide pool of self-driving cars which could be booked as needed, making the public/private distinction irrelevant. There would be many problems to sort out, but this is likely to be at least as much a matter of IT as car manufacturing. Governments should resist the temptation to focus on particular technologies and see the bigger picture. Encouraging innovation will pay dividends for transport as for other sectors.