Can we predict the future of transport?

Written by: Giles Perkins
Published On: 6 Feb 2017

Are we there yet? The age old question, as applicable to a family trip as it is to predicting what the future might hold for transportation and mobility.

Right across the planet we are experiencing significant socio-economic change and turbulence. We have an increasing and ageing population which has ever evolving needs and expectations. The rise in digital connectivity in most corners of the globe has revolutionised the way in which we live, work and consume, disrupting traditional service models in day to day for basic activities such as banking or buying our groceries. The rapid development of nanotechnologies and 3D printing are starting to impact the way in which and where things are manufactured from parts for machines through to what we eat.

Things are moving quickly: In 20 years we’ve seen a fledgling internet become almost an everyday essential for modern life, underpinning most of our fundamental systems and processes. The early iterations of artificial intelligence are already removing some of the human elements in day to day decision making and information provision.

Imagining future places: an autonomous vehicle zone

But what about the evolution of transport? Machines, largely driven by humans, have for a long time moved people and goods either individually or collectively within long established networks of infrastructure. Autopilot functions are well established in aviation and some railways have automated trains but it is only in the last few years that autonomous road vehicles have begun to become a commercial reality. Directly linking vehicles to their networks and control systems through high speed, digital connectivity allows the human controller/driver to be removed for some or part of the time with the promise of safer, more efficient systems. That same digital mesh is linking customers with service providers, changing the way in which we pay for travel and consume information on the go.

Ultimately of course transportation in all its forms is a means to an end linking people, places and activities, moving raw materials to manufacturers and goods to markets – all of which underpin the economy and social wellbeing.

Importantly, we are on the cusp of a revolution in transport, driven by technological change and opportunity, fuelled by socio-economic and personal needs. The impact of connectivity, automation, robotics, propulsion and materials science, underpinned by digital connectivity will impact every aspect of our traditional transport solutions whether it’s personal movement, mass transit or the distribution of goods.

Autonomous vehicles: next generation motorways and major routes

Autonomous vehicles, whilst they will take time to become the norm, will significantly impact transportation offering new personal and shared transport solutions with very different user cases and ownership models as supported in WSP | Parsons Brinckerhoff’s recent report on Autonomous Vehicles (read here). Mobility as a Service will provide seamless and ticketless on-account transportation whether hiring a car, using the bus or paying to use a road. Ultimately artificial intelligence will manage demand, capacity and network performance making travel safer and more efficient to meet shifting economic and social needs.

Whilst some of this might seem to be in the distant future, the investment decisions we make today will impact the path to the future outcomes we want to achieve. Given the rapid rate of technological change we need to consider now what we want for our transportation networks and how they serve our future society.

This is exactly what we are doing for some of our clients where we’re predicting how the economy will be structured and performing over the next 30 years, developing likely scenarios informed by some of the technological and social changes described above. Then we will develop transport strategies for those future years to help inform investment programmes, help decision makers and to position their regions for the future.

Whilst the future of transport isn’t quite here yet, it’s thundering towards us.

If you’d like to be part of this change in transportation and mobility, helping us to take on some ambitious and exciting challenges in 2017 and beyond, we’d like to speak with you in the strictest confidence to understand more about your aspirations. Let’s talk – register your interest here.

Giles Perkins is a Technical Director in Transport Planning & Intelligent Transport at Mouchel, now part of WSP | Parsons Brinckerhoff.