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Transports of delight

‘Transports of delight’ will remind those UK readers of mature years of the London buses lauded in the Flanders and Swann song (others may find it meaningless, for which I apologise). In the 1950s, when the song was written, public transport was king and car ownership much lower than today. Since then, things have moved on considerably. Car ownership in developed countries is almost universal and has essentially peaked as more people in an increasingly urban population choose not to buy one.

The private car is the default mode of transport for very many people, and global numbers are continuing to rise as prosperity and purchasing power in today’s and tomorrow’s emerging economies grow. The increasing sophistication of vehicle technologies is very apparent in industrialised countries but will soon impact the market in India and China. Change is coming and coming fast.

The inefficient, dirty, unreliable and rust-prone cars available only a few decades ago have evolved into today’s much safer, cleaner, faster and more economic models. But, despite the advances, some intrinsic problems remain. Not least of these are road congestion and air pollution. In fact, cars are already far cleaner, but more technology to make a difference to both of these issues is continuing to be deployed.

Whereas the enormous changes we have seen in cars in our lifetimes have all been essentially evolutionary, we are now on the brink of some more revolutionary ones. Over time, these could be almost as significant as the replacement of horse-drawn transport by the internal combustion engine a century or so ago. Perhaps we should be talking about the future of personal transport rather than simply the car mark 2.

This is because there are several strands that come together, in particular: control (whether autonomous or with human control), propulsion (internal combustion, electric or fuel cell) and ownership (private or shared).

Any one of these could bring about a major change to personal transport. Taken together, they are truly revolutionary. At the same time, we need to think about managing the transition, so that this combination of disruptive technologies brings general improvements as quickly as possible rather than simply gives us more of the same.

Arguably the most significant of these strands is control; do we leave cars under the control of a driver, or do we aim to make them completely autonomous? Such a choice is independent of the mode of propulsion and could conceivably be retro-fitted to some vehicles. The involvement of major IT companies has already brought the technology to a stage where it is essentially ready to be rolled out.

Companies have been working on concept self-controlled cars for many years, but the real breakthroughs have only come since IT has become sufficiently developed. It is (at least conceptually) easy enough to program a car to go from point A to point B if the exact route is known. Making it capable of driving in all conditions and in all places that a human driver can is many times more difficult.

Route planning is no longer a problem now that GPS systems are ubiquitous. Traffic sensing is now also quite sophisticated, so that in-journey rerouting can be done to minimise delays.  Much more demanding is awareness of, and response to, other road users, road markings, traffic signals and miscellaneous hazards.  A range of small sensors, including radar and cameras can collect the data and are already used to a limited degree in safety systems such as adaptive cruise control and lane departure warnings.

The real difficulty comes in using the output of these sensors as the basis for complete control of the car. Modern IT systems have the capacity to process the enormous amounts of data generated and can react to hazards faster and more predictably than human drivers. The extended testing undertaken by Google, Uber, Tesla and others gives a degree of confidence that such automated control should be significantly safer than human control.

The problem comes when, inevitably, accidents happen and people are killed. Generally, we are less concerned about the results of accidents caused by human error (the vast majority of them), but do worry about those that are outside our control. So, for example, travellers demand extremely expensive safety measures to reduce the already tiny number of fatalities in rail accidents, while tolerating the much greater number of people killed on roads every year.

That is a difficult one to call, and is one reason why a human driver will be expected to be ready to take the controls when self-driving cars first appear on the roads in any numbers. Not that this will necessarily improve safety much; people are likely to intervene most effectively if they are constantly monitoring what is happening on the road, but as automatic control proves effective, less and less attention will be paid and driving skills will themselves inevitably wane. The solution to this conundrum can only emerge with time.

Truly autonomous vehicles should not only make road travel safer, but should be able to make better use of road space by reducing the current active competition for it. The difficulty, as others have already pointed out, is during the transition period when conventional and self-driving cars share the same road. Again, we cannot tell how much benefit will accrue at this stage. Perhaps some routes could be restricted for use by self-driving cars only during busy times.

Quite possibly the short-term future of self-driving technologies will be in shared urban transport systems – perhaps akin to the Uber model – which will chime with the move away from personal ownership in cities.

As for how these vehicles will be powered, the smart money seems to be on fully electric cars taking over from petrol and diesel engines. However, at the same time, conventional engines continue to become even more efficient and cleaner (yes, including diesels) and it is unlikely that the continuing problems of cost and making long journeys under battery power routinely possible will produce a full transition in the foreseeable future. Electric cars may have a great future in cities, but even then it will become clearer that they are not a complete solution: tyres and brake wear and emissions from gas boilers are also significant contributors to air pollution. Hybrids may in practice become the norm.

The ownership issue also has big implications for transport in cities. If autonomous cars are safer and make better use of road capacity, and city dwellers do not need fulltime access to a car, then why not move towards a common ownership or pay by the hour model that gets people around conveniently without them needing to buy their own vehicle? Uber and others appear to be thinking along these lines. In the longer term, maybe this would even make bus and tram networks redundant. It’s quite possible that some cities in emerging economies could be the first to adopt this approach, leapfrogging other traffic management approaches in a similar way to mobile phones avoiding the need for countrywide fixed phone lines.

We cannot be sure what will happen, but a mix of advanced IT, engineering skills and human ingenuity will surely bring welcome improvements to transport for the next generation.

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