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Economics

All aboard the mobility revolution

The UK has all the attributes to lead the way as seismic shifts affect how we travel, but does it have the focus?

ACES was the theme that ran through a prestigious dinner event held at the WMG (formerly the Warwick Manufacturing Group) at the University of Warwick and sponsored by NatWest and Lombard.

“There is a race taking place right now,” said Richard Hill, head of manufacturing and automotive sector at the bank. “The question is whether or not the UK will be at the forefront of that race. I truly believe it will be. The UK is capable and has the motivation to deliver global, leading mobility solutions.”

Autonomous: solving a problem

Stan Boland, CEO at transport firm FiveAI, likened delivering a safe autonomous car to the challenge of putting a man on the moon with 1960s technology. “The first of many difficulties is the number of confounding variables,” he said. “Confounding is a perturbation that makes it difficult to work out what’s going on. It could be shadows, rain, bad lighting or calibration errors. There are so many reasons why systems can fail.

“So there’s a long tail of surprises that exists in the world. We have many unusual events that we cannot imagine by sitting at a desk. But the biggest challenge is the cost of turning learning into a safe piece of software.”

But Boland is optimistic these problems can be overcome and, perversely, he believes this is because of the lack of capital to support it. “The fact that we need to think deeply about how we solve problems, and we cannot do it by brute force, means we have to apply a depth of thinking. This offers us an enormous advantage and gives me confidence that, with high certainty and relatively low capital, we will correct the problem.”

Connected: creating a communications backbone

The next generation of communications networks is just around the corner in the form of 5G, and it looks set to be a game changer. With the support of private and public-sector organisations, West Midlands 5G (WM5G) is building a 5G test bed.

“We’re starting by not only looking at the vehicles themselves but at the whole infrastructure,” said Robert Franks, interim MD of WM5G. “More than half of traffic lights in our region are not yet connected, which means it’s difficult to optimise the timing of those lights to adjust to flows of traffic.

“The speed of 5G is important. Connected autonomous vehicles will create around four or five terabytes of data per day. A proportion of that needs to be transmitted to other vehicles and infrastructure. Therefore, you need a higher bandwidth to handle it. Higher bandwidth gives you the capability to connect more devices such as sensors in streetlamps, road furniture or mobile phones without affecting speed.

“It’s potentially unsafe to have a situation where, because the network is slow, a critical piece of information does not pass to one of the vehicles or one of the sensors.”

Electric: the UK needs to catch up

When it comes to the electrification of cars, the UK would, at first glance, appear to be ahead of the game. One of the bestselling electric vehicles (EVs), the Nissan Leaf, is manufactured in Sunderland. But that masks the fact that in the transition from the internal combustion engine to the EV, the UK still needs to invest in future technology in order to stay head of the curve.

Andy Palmer, CEO at Aston Martin, examined the outlook for the luxury sector, particularly battery technology. “We need to be picking winners that are moving into the next generation," he said, adding: “We need to invest in this as a country.”

Archie Macpherson, CEO of the High Value Manufacturing Catapult at WMG, explained that the UK has a major role to play in the mobility transformation. However, to achieve this, the sector needs to get a coherent message and then collaborate. “We are trying to get the key players that are involved in this marketplace together because we see this change happening within the aerospace, rail, and automotive sectors,” he said. “The more we can work together and collaborate, then the better outcome there will be not only for the UK, but for the international companies as well. This creates an opportunity for the supply chain, and the aim of why WMG are involved in this is to ensure we make more here in the UK.”

It is not just on the ground that the race to lead the electrification era is taking place; it’s also happening in the skies.

“There are significant challenges around how you deliver electrical power safely in an aerospace platform, and how we get to a point where we have a reliable, safe and efficient system, which can offer an alternative to current propulsion systems,” said Rob Watson, director at Rolls-Royce Electrical. “It is a big technology journey and it needs support in an enabling ecosystem that makes it possible to deliver that kind of capability.”

Clean mobility creates an opportunity for the supply chain, and the aim of the WMG is to ensure we make more here in the UK.

Archie Macpherson
CEO, High Value Manufacturing Catapult at WMG
Shared: the power of real-time information

Chris Thompson, CEO of ‘travel assistant’ platform You. Smart. Thing., delivered an aspect of the shared section of the ACES narrative. Thompson’s talk zoomed in on how the sharing of real-time information across the mobility supply chain can balance the supply of next-generation transport services with future demand.

The Birmingham-based team developed You. Smart. Thing. with Transport for West Midlands, funded by the Department for Transport. “It enables venues to automatically tailor and offer personalised travel advice to visitors,” said Thompson. “The system reduces demand on frontline staff, saving time and money, and increases repeat visits to venues by delivering a significantly enhanced customer experience and a sense of arrival.

“The travel assistant basically replaces Google maps with a system that allows venues to specify routes for different customer types, and for visitors to subscribe to updates and request one-to-one assistance if needed, giving assurance they can make the event.”

The opportunity to create a safer future

WMG’s Macpherson pointed out that 90% of accidents are caused by driver error. “It’s a huge opportunity for safety,” he said. “About 30,000 people are killed on the roads in the US every single year, with 2.5 million people injured as a result of these incidents. We can make the world a safer place. If you add the electrification side of things you have clean mobility, which will make it a cleaner, safer place.

“Clean mobility creates an opportunity for the supply chain, and the aim of the WMG is to ensure we make more here in the UK.”

But Macpherson was clear it won’t happen quickly and highlighted the challenges ahead. “We’re going from driving the vehicles to the vehicle driving itself,” he said. “The insurance, the standards and the public confidence in achieving that is not something one can achieve overnight. We know internal combustion engines and have been working on them for 100 years. With battery-powered vehicles, five years ago the issue was around range anxiety: could you travel 160 miles in the vehicle? Now it’s moving towards the pace and availability of charging.”

Macpherson cautioned that the desperate need for infrastructure and the need for public buy-in means the mobility revolution has yet to occur.

But while the drive towards a cleaner, arguably safer, future may take time, the insights shared at the ACES conference indicated that the overall direction of travel was clearly headed one way.

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