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The future of transport is disruptive

Jonathan Spear | 08 Sep 2015 | Comments

The transport sector has long had far-reaching ideas for how people and goods will get around in the future.

In 1961, for example, the American Weekend Magazine speculated:

“The Year 2000 will be the age of press-button transportation. Rocket belts will increase a man’s stride to 30 feet, and bus-type helicopters will travel along crowded air skyways. There will be moving plastic-covered pavements, individual hoppicopters and 200 mph monorail trains operating in all large cities. The family car will be soundless, vibrationless and self-propelled themostatically. The engine will be smaller than a typewriter. Cars will travel overland on an 18 inch air cushion.”

This particular vision of the future didn’t happen of course; and whilst the following 40 years did see great progress in personal mobility, freedom of movement and access to a wealth of opportunities, supported by modern motor cars and mass transit, it also gave us urban congestion, pollution and a public realm shaped more often than not by vehicles and concrete than for people.

In the 21st Century, many have once again taken out their crystal ball to contend that we are on the verge of a new technological revolution. In particular, there has been much talk about so-called “disruptive” technologies which are predicted to transform consumer experience and change society beyond recognition.

In a 2013 research piece, the McKinsey Global Institute lists 12 such technologies. To qualify as disruptive, each is classed as rapidly advancing or experiencing breakthroughs in innovation, having broad commercial reach, showing the potential to create significant economic and social value and, above all, radically challenging the status quo. The Mobile Internet, Cloud technology, 3D printing, renewable energy and next-generation genomics are all seen as fulfilling these conditions with profound public policy, economic and legal implications, and with impacts which cannot be fully predicted based on existing values, experience & business models.

In transport, we are facing a number of technologies which could arguably be described as disruptive on these grounds. These include:

  • The electrification of road transport, ranging from hybrid vehicles such as the Toyota Prius now giving way to exploding sales of plug-in electric cars from the likes of Tesla, BMW and Nissan, and with breakthroughs in battery and energy storage expected in the early to mid-2020s;
  • Intelligent Mobility, with smart information and access to online services via personal devices, big data and the broader Internet of Things allowing travel to be commoditised, ordered and managed on demand in near real-time, threatening established transport operators as Uber has shown; and
  • Vehicle automation, with engineering, software and data becoming increasing integrated to the point that within a few years it will be technically possible to take the human driver out of the loop completely, with Google and others seeking to turn motor vehicles into “living spaces on wheels” for work, rest and play.

For many commentators, these technologies are not a question of “if” rather than “when.” Indeed, they are out of the test lab in some shape or form already, at demonstration stage or evolving from concept to commercial application.

They are also showing signs of converging. The car of the future is likely to be clean (to the point of zero-emission on-street), intelligent (able to steer and park itself) and connected (offering the user infotainment and other targeted personalised services rather than a focus on unproductive driving). And the companies behind this shift will be driven as much by licensing software (Apple, Google and Baidu making the running) as selling traditional automotive hardware (threatening Ford, Toyota and Mercedes).

Is it possible that within ten years from now, these converging technologies will have moved into the mainstream? There are clearly some sceptics, but ten years ago who would have anticipated the emergence and impacts of Wi-Fi, 4G and smart apps on the daily lives of millions? Steve Jobs launched the iPhone in June 2007, only 8 years ago. Now in 2015, who doesn’t crave the latest iPhone6 or its Android equivalent, constantly connected, on the move and tracked via Google, Twitter or WeChat? Already over 50% of the human population and 20% of motor vehicles of the planet are connected to mobile data services and the numbers are increasing in double digit proportions year on year.

In the transport sector, new technology clearly offers substantial benefits including increased safety, more efficient use of infrastructure and reduced emissions. From a user perspective, it offers the potential for greater personal productivity, accessibility and informed choice. And for businesses, it offers large operational efficiencies and the opportunity for targeting products and services to where they best add value and generate revenue. In each case, as Apple might say, “This changes everything.”

Perhaps, however, we should pause for a minute. In many areas, the vision of technology is running ahead of the practicalities of making it work in the here and now understanding consumer tastes, deciding ethics and enabling practices which are acceptable to policy makers and regulators. Sometimes, it can also be difficult to separate the blue sky claims for technology made in the latest company keynote or TED presentation from the more mundane realities of ease of use, reliability, cost and legality.

Again, as McKinsey comments:

“The link between hype and potential is not clear. Emerging technologies often receive a great deal of notice. News media know that the public is fascinated with gadgets and eager for information about how the future might unfold. The history of technology is littered with breathless stories of breakthroughs that never quite materialized. With the possible exception of the mobile Internet, there is no clear relationship between the amount of talk a technology generates and its potential to create value.”

This is good advice. The challenge for policy makers is to make sure they fully understand all sides of the technologies coming forward and make their own assessments based on hard evidence and structured analysis. And whilst the focus of this understanding will be on the next 10 to 20 years, there needs to be immediate and short-term attention on getting some fundamental building blocks in place linked to clear policies and standards and a clear roadmap of delivery.

Otherwise, we risk being as wrong about the future as many of the armchair scientists of the 1960s.

This text is a summary of a presentation on Transport and the Smart City given to the Annual Conference of the Hong Kong Chartered Institute of Water and Environmental Management in May 2015.

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