ITC considers the impacts of smart technology on transport

Will smart technology have a greater impact on transport than physical infrastructure?

The Occasion

Smart data and technology are already reshaping the way we travel. Mobile communications are providing us with new ways to pay, obtain real-time information, and experience our transport choices; while the vehicles we travel in and the networks we use are being transformed by new technologies. To what extent does this pose a challenge to current policy formulation, and will smart technology have a greater impact than physical infrastructure on the way we travel in the future?

The ITC hosted a Discussion Evening to discuss these important issues on 14th July 2015, and the event was chaired by Steve Norris, a former Transport Minister and ITC Commissioner. Over 70 guests attended and the subject was introduced through presentations from a distinguished panel of experts comprising: Professor Phil Blythe, Chief Scientific Advisor to the Department for Transport; Bob Lange, Senior Vice-President at Airbus; John Hill, Managing Director of Cubic Europe; and Dr Rick Robinson, IT Director, Smart Data and Technology, at Amey.


Transport and smart technology – key issues raised by the speakers:

  • Phil Blythe explained how technology could be used to address a number of the challenges facing policy makers at the DfT. He observed that the key issues facing transport officials were population growth, urbanisation, an ageing population and extreme natural events. The reduction of road congestion was particularly important because of the problem of poor air quality in the UK’s urban areas. Smart technology was already being harnessed, he explained, to help manage demand across the strategic transport network, as well as to solve engineering challenges posed by an ageing and vulnerable transport infrastructure. Professor Blythe added that the opportunities to use smart technology would only increase, with a number of the ‘great’ technologies being supported by Government having applications across the transport world. Already the germ of future solutions existed through initiatives such as black box insurance, big data collection, and information sharing. He concluded by hoping that these technologies would be shared and made applicable across modes, and called for increased awareness of how mobility was becoming a service.
  • Bob Lange focused on how technology was changing operations and passenger experience in the aviation industry. He pointed out that aviation technology had been revolutionary for travel, and that demand for air travel was continuing to grow fast, being expected to double between 2015 and 2030. Technology would be crucial for managing the effects of such demand, particularly in terms of developing more fuel-efficient aircraft and engine designs leading to lower emissions. In addition, Airbus’s in-flight technology was helping pilots use more efficient flight paths and landing patterns. The confidence of the industry to achieve these ends was evident in its commitment to carbon-neutral growth. From the passenger perspective, he noted that efforts were being made to provide more choice over airline meals, although the worst aspects of customer experience often happened outside the plane. For that reason, e-tracking of cargo and baggage, biometric passports helping faster immigration processing, and better aids to airport navigation would all help travellers.
Bob Lange discusses technology in the aviation industry

Bob Lange discusses technology in the aviation industry

  • John Hill explained how technology was changing how we pay for transport. He explained that two ‘game changers’ for payment technology had been contactless payments and the smart phone. London, he observed, has been an international pioneer in the development of contactless payments, and is well positioned because it already had the Oyster card infrastructure. This stemmed from the foresight of TfL, which invested in the infrastructure, while commercial interests played catch-up in working out how they would handle the technology. Mr Hill noted that it can take time to develop standards for new technologies, but this process was best left to the industry to agree, rather than for Government to impose. Looking ahead, he suggested that key issues for improving transport payment technology would be the processes of urbanisation and connectivity. The development of a single account for payments would be important, and it was notable that public fears about privacy and data collection appeared to have diminished.
  • Dr Rick Robinson provided a viewpoint on how technology was changing infrastructure, the built environment and business models. He suggested that the rise of the ‘sharing economy’ was creating a new city environment and infrastructure needs. Noting that innovation creates disruption for the built environment, he explained that the impacts of smart technology on transport could be profound, seen already in the challenges created by online commerce for the ‘last mile’ of distribution. He pointed out similarities between the thinking of urban planners such as Kelvin Campbell, and the effects of modern communications technology. In contrast to the brutal urbanism of the post-war period, there was an understanding now that public space needed to be preserved and urban environments needed to be adaptable. Open data sources and sharing could be used to help solve urban problems, he suggested, while new forms of manufacturing through 3D printing would create links between the manufacturing, creative, technology and healthcare sectors, generating new travel demand between their existing locations in cities and bringing opportunities for regeneration.

Key themes raised in the discussion:

Steve Norris chairs the discussion

Steve Norris chairs the discussion

  • Technology hasn’t decreased the demand for travel, but it has increased our wish for control over our time. It was noted by the Chairman that although new forms of online communication, such as Skype, had flourished in recent years, this had not diminished our desire to travel or to have face-to-face contact. Others noted that we were ill-prepared for the speed at which technology was moving, and that we often have to wait for behaviours and acceptability to catch up. The panel also observed that communications technology had given us more control over our time and how we use it; as a result expectations had increased for having real-time information in order to exercise greater control over how and when we travel.
  • Smart technology could help to improve the capacity of our networks, and reshape our infrastructure needs. Delegates pointed out that technology would allow better utilisation of our networks, particularly on the roads, and this could refashion our ability to use existing capacity. It was also noted that travel demand, particularly rail and air, was continuing to increase in spite of technological advances. Experts suggested that it would be important to link and share data from across different modes to understand pressure points on our infrastructure networks; TfL was held up as a good example of where this was happening.
  • The potential to manipulate behaviour through smart technology is high. Guests observed that there now existed huge potential to nudge and shape behaviour as a result of the data and technology we have available. The panellists agreed that concerns about privacy appeared to be diminishing, as the benefits from providing better and more convenient services became evident. However, some noted that people were more hesitant about giving information to the Government in which trust and confidence remained poor. In addition, it was observed that information is often inaccurate or misunderstood, and could lead to misguided behavioural nudging being applied naively or counterproductively. There were also some concerns about the need to ensure safety between strangers in such an interconnected world, and also that we need to interpret much better the mass of data if behavioural nudging was to be successful.
  • We should investigate and be aware of the disruptive dimension of new technologies. Some guests argued that new technologies and applications could have undesirable side effects, citing examples from the spread of Airbnb and Uber. While these had driven the price down of services, there was concern that greater regulation would be required to manage these issues. The panelists observed that disruption would be inevitable, but it was imperative to think about consequences early and to avoid heavy handed regulation where possible.