What does the future of our transport system look like?

Now more than ever, we are seeing cities across the UK, and world for that matter, adopt the technology required to become a ‘smart city’ – propelling them into the 21st century with innovative ways of working. Within these smart cities, the access to the likes of IoT networks and 5G is allowing for the development of smart transport to ensure data plays a key role in making safer, more coordinated, and 'smarter' use of transport networks.

We asked our Head of Proposition Development at North, Paul Thomas, what he thought about the future of our transport system in the UK. Here’s what he had to say.

Why is smart technology needed?

A key area which must be consider here is public health. As exhausting as the topic has become (pardon the pun), we need to be looking at how we reduce exhaust fumes. It is common knowledge that across the UK the air quality in many areas breaches European limits, and so in order to devise a transport system fit for the future, we need to take stock of where we are now, and where we plan to get to.

Our public transport system should be frictionless; efficient, deterministic, an improvement on our air quality and supportive of the natural environment. It should also prioritise commuter experience and adoption. A robust transport system is critical in supporting economies and increasing productivity, so ease of use and efficiency is paramount. In order to deliver this, we need a baseline of data acquired from a connected city.

What challenges do we face in bringing smart technology to the UK?
Technology is certainly evolving at a quick pace, however the maturity of technology is not what poses the fundamental issue here. Rather it is about the wider integration of different elements to create a new solution. Whilst the technology develops, the challenge is to define the future position and the roadmap to get there, backfilling with the technology.

The biggest challenge for the UK is that we have a mature, existing transport system that must be advanced through the use of technology and intelligent connectivity.

In the UK we have good rail and road infrastructures, in line with some of the best in the world, which is a key part of our transport system going forward. Yet it is our reliability, connectivity, cost and security which lags behind other countries, and recently our capacity. Looking ahead, it is important that we focus on enhanced connectivity and software driven safety & security to advance our infrastructure.

Our citywide deployments of intelligent transit management systems (ITMS) have gained us a wealth of knowledge and experience across the UK, and the ongoing research and development underway into autonomous vehicles will drive that forward.

Is IoT in the UK up to the challenge?

While IoT is a concept, the reality has been around for decades. The difference now is that recent advances have made the technology more available through its simplicity to build and code, and the reduction in cost of ‘IoT’ and sensors. Rail systems have long had telemetry based systems to monitor infrastructure, including rolling stock as a forerunner to what we collectively call IoT Systems. Going forward, we’re going to have to refresh individual systems and aggregate the data to derive new insights and support the direction of travel we want to take in the UK.

Although the technology is mature in many ways, how the technology performs contextually is paramount. Transport, for obvious reasons, has significant real-time safety and operational parameters that require robust planning and testing, and re-testing

Is hacking of concern when it comes to smart transport?

There are existing IT security models which are very robust. Public Key Infrastructure (PKI), for instance, uses mathematical models to secure the data as it is being transmitted. In principle, we do have the tools available to us but the challenge that remains is implementation.

There are too many examples to mention in the public domain of systems that have been hacked or data locked globally, and it is a significant threat to countries. As a result, the roles of a ‘Chief Security Officer’ and ‘Chief Information Officer’ have never been more important in ensuring the resilience of organisations as well as their systems. The National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) are also active in promoting guidance around the high level security requirements and principles that should govern smart cities in the UK.

What opportunities are there for the supply chain?

Smart transport and the development of smart cities will be a great economic stimulus and will aid our global competitive position in the long run. There will be infrastructure requirements, both within construction and technology, as well as a growth in consultancies to support a multitude of initiatives that will come into existence.  This in turn will lead into opportunities for system integrators to work with a variety of manufacturers and specifiers.

Would a digital twin approach help support the move intelligent transport systems?

Absolutely. A digital twin represents a model or virtual representation of the data that is collected by the sensors and system as a whole. The more data, the better the digital twin which gives us a more detailed model on which we can test ideas and model future positions. As a by-product, we can collate significant amounts of data which enables new ideas to be explored, even allowing us to go that step further and model what could happen under certain scenarios.

What about autonomous vehicles? When will they be commonplace in our urban environments?

Academia and industry are already active in this area in the UK. 5G is key for Connected and Autonomous Vehicles (CAVs) due to low latency and high bandwidth, and various universities across the UK have 5G testbeds in which numerous automotive companies are already undergoing trials. In the US, for example, we have already seen growth in self-driving cars and in the UK, this is just around the corner.

Earlier this year in fact, North announced a partnership with Nokia in order to design, build and support a £4.9 million operation that would see the automation of a 40 tonne HGV. Taking place at the Nissan test track in Sunderland, North will implement the required infrastructure to test and demonstrate the operational 5G-enabled autonomous delivery.

The pilot will enable the removal of the driver from the process and allow remote teleoperations to control the vehicles which can carry up to 40 tonnes of materials. This project will showcase how network providers and industry can come together to design and develop automated logistic solutions which address industry challenges with innovation.

Artificial intelligence and advanced analytics will be used to review, stress test, and hone the application of the technology. Throughout the test period, which will be around 12-to-18-months, the consortium will ensure the system is fit for purpose, protected from threats such as security breaches and shall create a blueprint for future projects.

Looking to hear more on smart technology? We recently spoke to Digital Bulletin as part of a feature called ‘Smart Cities, Intelligent Transport’. Read all about it here.



15 June 2021