A coordinated collaborative approach to making UK’s cities smart

Posted: 27 April 2017 | | No comments yet

The convergence of multiple layers of technological innovation in recent years is culminating in a truly revolutionary change to the way we navigate our urban areas. Iain Forbes, Head of the UK Government’s Centre for Connected and Autonomous Vehicles (CCAV) explains why the need for a structured collaborative approach has been acknowledged early on to ensure success in our smart future.

In May 2016 the Queen visited Parliament to set out the UK Government’s legislative programme. For those of us who work in transport policy, there was a fascinating statement:

“My ministers will ensure the United Kingdom is at the forefront of technology for new forms of transport, including autonomous and electric vehicles.”

This bold commitment is just one of many clear signs that there is something interesting going on in the world of transport. If you visit the UK over the course of the next year, you might notice some more.

For example, in London, Milton Keynes, Bristol and elsewhere researchers will be trialling a range of self-driving vehicles amongst tourists, commuters and other road users. In the West Midlands, volunteers will be trialling a new smartphone service that will calculate the best way for them to get from A to B using a variety of different types of transport, paid for by means of a subscription rather than through individual fares. Furthermore, around Coventry, car and telecoms companies will be trialling technology that will send signals between cars and beacons in the roads to help provide improved safety whilst delivering information straight to the driver.  

What is triggering all this interest?

Advances in data science, computing power, sensing technology and other related fields are converging to bring about some of the biggest changes to the way mobility is provided. These technologies, the business models they unlock, and related demographic and societal changes, are set to have a profound impact on how we get around. These changes offer great opportunities to improve our transport system.

We want to make journeys safer. The overwhelming majority of collisions on our roads are caused by human error, so we expect the introduction of self-driving vehicles to reduce the number of collisions.

We want to reduce congestion and are keen to explore ways in which these developments could help improve journeys and make our transport networks function more effectively.

We also want to widen the range of travel options for the elderly and those with mobility and visual impairments. These technologies could potentially unlock new personal freedoms for those who find it challenging to get around by themselves.

The UK Government wants to shape the emergence of new technology to ensure it supports a transport system that works for all.

To aid our vision, we are acting to provide the right regulatory environment by working with industry and academia on the research that will deliver this technology.

This is not easy. For example, how do you design a regulatory framework when we don’t know when the first fully self-driving vehicles will be available for travellers? We have made a conscious effort to focus on the most pressing problems first.

For instance, there is a genuine need to have an open regulatory framework for testing automated technology. In 2015 we published a Code of Practice for the testing of self-driving vehicles on public roads. This framework allows developers to test automated vehicles on any road in the UK without needing to seek permission from the government, or report any data to a central authority, provided the vehicle is roadworthy; there is appropriate insurance in place; and the tester follows relevant traffic laws.

Another focus is on motor insurance. In the UK the driver, rather than the vehicle, is insured. In a world of self-driving vehicles this could create issues in the event of a crash while a vehicle is in automated mode. This problem will be alleviated if manufacturers and insurers have had time to develop products to cover this sort of a situation. In order to give them that time, we are acting now.

We are also investing in innovation projects to help ensure that the UK is a world leader in the development of this technology. There are hundreds of millions of pounds being invested in research and demonstration projects for self-driving vehicles in the UK over the next few years – around half of which will come from government.

What is genuinely interesting about the UK’s programme is who is involved and what they are trying to achieve. The programme is collaborative by design, with car makers and technology companies learning alongside insurance companies, law firms, local authorities and public transport operators.

You will find Oxbotica, a spin-out from the University of Oxford’s Mobile Robotics Group, working alongside Greenwich Borough Council – a local authority keen to understand how this technology could help them solve their transport problems. You will also see Jaguar Land Rover and Ford working alongside public authorities from Milton Keynes and Coventry. This is an attempt to bring together the best thinking in our research base with the best thinking in transport policy with the aim of designing common solutions.

We all rely on transport, so these changes offer a chance to transform our lives for the better. If we make the right choices, we can ensure the benefits of these changes are felt far and wide.

Iain Forbes is the Head of the UK Government’s Centre for Connected and Autonomous Vehicles (CCAV) – a new policy unit based jointly in the Department for Transport (DfT) and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. The CCAV aims to help ensure that the UK remains a world-leader in developing and testing connected and autonomous vehicles. Prior to joining CCAV, Iain worked in No.10 as a Private Secretary to the Prime Minister, covering issues including transport and the devolved administrations. He has previously worked in both the DfT and the Home Office, advising on innovation, science and technology, security policy and environmental strategy.