We are on the cusp of a defining moment for transport as significant as the coming of the railway or the carby Jesse Norman MP / March 29, 2019 / Leave a comment
In the early 20th century Henry Ford’s famous vision for the Model T was to create a vehicle “for the great multitude.” It would be “so low in price that no man making a good salary will be unable to own one and enjoy with his family the blessing of hours of pleasure in God’s great open spaces,” he said.
Over a century later, with 1.4bn cars on roads around the world, Ford’s vision looks far more mixed. Though the car has brought previously unimagined freedom and independence to millions, perhaps billions, of people, its success has come at a price, turning many of “God’s great open spaces” into traffic jams and car parks.
Today we are on the cusp of another great mobility revolution—a defining moment for transport as significant as the coming of the railway or the car. Unlike those earlier transformations, however, this one will be created less by one single technology than by a complex wave of new technologies. Electric vehicles, big data, automated transport and digital communications will combine, not only to change the way we travel, but also the way we plan, operate and pay for transport.
The possibilities are extraordinary: self-driving vehicles which massively reduce road accidents due to human error, and make transport accessible even for people who are housebound from disability or old age; cars that recharge on the move and travel through city streets without emissions; single, automatic payment systems for multimodal journeys, as though every trip involved an Oyster card. It promises a future of vast opportunities, with the potential to change society fundamentally for the better.
But when we contemplate this new world, it is crucial that we seek to learn from the past. In the UK’s 20th century rush to become a nation of car owners and carmakers, no one knew how motoring would evolve. Still less so today, perhaps. But to swap 30 million petrol and diesel vehicles for 30m electric ones would do nothing to solve our problems of congestion, obesity, or escalating social individualism—indeed, it would be a policy failure of epic proportions.
So in thinking now about the transport technologies of the future, we have to ask big questions about their interactions and effects. We must seek to think through the social, moral and political choices involved, from the outset. Will anti-competitive monopolies be created? Could emerging technologies be exploited by cyber criminals? How can new forms of transport support and serve the communities of tomorrow? How can we use these technologies to create a clearer, greener, safer and more inclusive society?
The government has set itself the goal of addressing these issues through its new Future of Mobility Strategy. Because change is likely to be felt first in towns and cities, we have started there, proposing a series of principles designed to make city transport safer, cleaner, and more accessible. They emphasise mass transit, a particular focus on walking and cycling, greater road safety, more inclusive use, and a host of other things.
We are looking at autonomous vehicles, yes; but we are not turning away from what’s happening now. So we will examine e-bikes and e-scooters, and new models of urban transport based on shared use of vehicles and road space, through such things as ride hailing apps and car clubs. To make it all real, we will also be conducting the biggest regulatory review of transport in a generation.
Goodness knows what Henry Ford would make of it. But I suspect he would be hugely excited about the challenges ahead—and the potential this time for us to be better prepared for what is to come. After all, as he put it, “hard knocks have their place and value—but hard thinking goes farther in less time.” We’re trying to do some of that hard thinking ourselves today.
Read more from our transport and technology report