by GK Strategy 15th November, 2017
3 min read

Do we need a transport technology strategy?

With a flurry of news releases heralding “the automated car revolution” and “hyperloop technology reviews” last week, the Department for Transport has been showcasing plans for the future of transport in Britain.

However, scratch beneath the surface and you find that the major piece of transport legislation in Parliament at present is a watered-down bill focused on governing the rollout of electric charge points and new forms of insurance. Whilst important, it’s not quite the transport revolution the original Modern Transport Bill promised back in 2016, which had a focus on investment and job creation across a range of high-tech transport sectors, from drones to space flight.

The scaling-back of ambition is undoubtedly linked to the finely-balanced Parliamentary arithmetic and the Government’s understandable focus on Brexit, but it also suggests a wider issue – the lack of a joined-up technology strategy for transport.

It’s great to see Government seizing on the potential for new technologies that could radically change the way we travel, work and live. Building a national hyperloop network would put almost anywhere in Britain within an hour’s commute of anywhere else, making current discussions about economic re-balancing away from London and increasing house prices in major cities somewhat redundant.

In the context of Brexit, there’s a strong argument for pushing forward with development of this technology, which could support highly-skilled jobs in research and development, design and engineering. The DfT’s Science Advisory Council, in evaluating the potential of this technology, has recognised Britain’s significant expertise and experience, both academic and industrial, in aerodynamics, asset management, project finance and design and delivery of major civil engineering projects.

However, the significant infrastructure and regulatory challenges, as well as the need for establishing passenger comfort and confidence in the new technology, means that we won’t all be travelling to work in a pod hurtling at 700mph in a low-pressure sealed tube just yet. The Council predicts that an operational hyperloop system is ‘at least a couple of decades away’.

Much sooner than that, we’re likely to start seeing autonomous vehicles popping up on our streets. Transport Secretary Chris Grayling confidently predicted last week  that 2021 would see the first self-driving cars on UK roads. He cited a report suggesting that connected autonomous taxis could potentially transport the same number of passengers with 10% of the vehicles – if true, this could have significant congestion and air quality benefits for our cities.

This is all very positive, but in other areas, the UK is falling short on introducing new technology in transport. Millions of train passengers still travel with paper tickets, using 1980s mag-stripe technology. Transport for London’s Oyster card system, much admired by other UK cities seeking to introduce integrated ticketing across bus, tram and rail, is now decades old. Much of our railway still runs on polluting diesel, with Government recently scrapping plans to electrify parts of the Midland Main Line and Great Western Main Line.

It’s clear that industry and Government working together can do more to support the introduction of new technology to change the way we travel, creating jobs and boosting the economy.

A transport technology strategy could be a good place to start.

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