Driving Forward – What’s Beyond Self-Driving Cars?


There’s more to the future of transport than autonomous vehicles, says Cubic’s Martin Howell

Even though the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) ended only a couple of weeks ago, the news is still dominated by the latest revelations relating to self-driving, or as this weeks’ announcement from Tesla highlights, even self-parking cars.

Autonomous vehicles have taken the public imagination by storm and you can’t blame them – after all, who wouldn’t want the luxury of sitting back and relaxing when our car takes us to the next destination. And it’s not just the comfort that comes into play – autonomous vehicles will have a big impact on the quality of life in urban areas and will no doubt form a crucial part of the future transportation systems – to the benefit of the travellers, work places, healthcare and the environment.

Autonomous driving

But autonomous vehicles are not the only thing happening in transportation today. In fact, before they can become a reality, the transportation network will need to evolve dramatically. Our cities are not yet ready to welcome self-driving cars and commercial self-driving vehicles are a good fifteen years off.

The details of the technology required still need to be refined and bringing it to mass market will pose a challenge in itself, with regulation and governance being just the tip of the ice berg. There is a bigger urban problem at play here – many transport networks are struggling to cope with rapidly growing populations, leading to congestion, pollution, and unhappy customers. In London alone, the equivalent of a Tube train full of people arrives in the city every week and needs to be accommodated on the transport network. So while a self-driving car remains an exciting pursuit, there are bigger and more pressing issues that innovation in technology and transport can help address now, to the benefit of all.

One of the innovations with the biggest potential for change is an overall, connected transportation management system that would define how efficiently the roads are used and that would be able to integrate a number of different information feeds, all of which have a bearing on road usage, including train schedules, traffic information, incident reporting and more, to the benefit of the traveller.

That’s the idea behind NextCity – Cubic’s view of city management and a strategy of integrating payment and information systems across all transportation modes. Such a connected system will empower commuters to make smarter, more informed travel decisions by providing a view of a city’s entire transportation architecture.

By capturing integrated, real-time information on how a city’s population moves and why they chose to move that way and by applying actionable analytics to the information gathered, it would enable smooth and efficient travel for commuters. In fact, self-driving cars would form a small part of a much bigger and complex mobility puzzle.

And unlike self-driving cars, we’re not too far away from this scenario. The solutions that would make up such a system are already here: ticketless travel through contactless payment cards, smart journey planners, live transport information, incident reporting, etc.

martin howellThese types of technologies are already familiar to and well received by commuters in urban areas and have the potential to make transport more attractive. For that to happen however, it is essential they don’t operate in isolation.

A truly innovative approach to the future of transport will require everyone to equally share in the knowledge and information transfer, including companies who develop the technology, service providers, governments and commuters themselves. And breaking down siloes requires a degree of boldness from each of those players. Companies will need to earn people’s trust by treating their data with care and respect, cities will need to embrace disruption by giving people the technology that will serve them, rather than private interests, and commuters will need to actively participate and allow data about their journeys to be used, if they are to benefit to the maximum extent possible.

Making this a reality is no longer a dream – it can be done. As I read the news about the latest prototypes of self-driving vehicles, I can only hope that looking to the future won’t take our attention away from addressing the challenges that our existing transport networks face today – and which can be solved, if we have the will.

Martin Howell is director of external affairs at Cubic Transportation Systems.

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