HS2 to Hyperloop: Can you predict the unpredictable future of transport?

Russell Goodenough
By , - InnovationTransport

Every week, there are headlines heralding a new age of transportation, with technologies emerging that could almost have come from a sci-fi novel.

In October, Sir Richard Branson announced Virgin’s investment in Hyperloop One, a system that will propel passengers through a tube using magnetic levitation to achieve ‘airline speeds on the ground.’

In the US, meanwhile, the Trump administration is accelerating the testing of drones for both unmanned delivery and human passenger transportation.

All of this can seem a world away from the infrastructure projects being undertaken in the here and now.

In the UK, construction is due to begin on HS2, a high-speed railway halving many journey times between London and other UK cities. However, despite being originally proposed in 2009, the line will not be completed until 2033.

It can seem that the pace of construction is struggling to match the pace of technological development. If this is true, how can governments deal with the unpredictable future of transport?

A new pace of unpredictability

The future of transport has always been notoriously hard to predict.

In 1825, the English Quarterly Review wrote: “What can be more palpably absurd than the prospect held out of locomotives traveling twice as fast as stagecoaches?” Within decades, the statement appeared almost laughably inaccurate.

People have often been slow to anticipate the next development in transport. However, today the pace of digital change is making this a serious issue.

In the 1920s, it didn’t matter if it took twenty years to build a railway since by the 1940s not much had changed.

By contrast, twenty years ago today we hadn’t even seen the birth of the smartphone. Even elements of our lives that were once predictable – such as our patterns of work and leisure – now are not. It’s harder than ever to say what may be around the corner.

Trouble for transport

All of this presents a big challenge for those governing and investing in transport infrastructure.

Why build a high-speed rail route when fleets of driverless cars might be just around the corner?

The monetary cost could be phenomenal, for a system that might be outdated within months. Right now, when the digital pace of change is faster than ever, it can be tempting to wait.

It’s not therefore surprising that public sector bodies are considering stalling investment until the next wave of digital disruption hits.

He who hesitates is lost

However, this is not a positive approach, and could leave countries like the UK not only behind other countries in infrastructure investment but also less able to take advantage of new transport technologies when they emerge.

Developing countries, without such a well-established infrastructure, may even leapfrog the UK – introducing new technologies more quickly and gaining all the economic advantages of transport investment.

With that in mind, it’s crucial that public sector bodies don’t bury their heads in the sand. Rather than waiting for the future of transport, we should begin to anticipate it with an adaptable infrastructure.

Don’t predict change – anticipate it

Transport stakeholders must look to create an infrastructure that is adaptable: anticipating, but not waiting for, the arrival of new innovations.

This means designing infrastructure that can adapt to new technology: motorways ready for self-driving fleets, or rail routes that could be updated in the future to host new Hyperloop shuttles.

But it also means adjusting the governance of transport to be ready to adapt, quickly.

And crucially, public and private organisations must be prepared to collaborate, to not only look ahead to likely advances but adjust existing networks quickly as new technology comes.

Investing for a bright future

Innovation in transport has the potential to revolutionise how we travel. However, we need ongoing investment in infrastructure that won’t be doomed to irrelevance a few years down the line.

We could be on the brink of the next age of transport. But rather than waiting to see what the future might bring, we must instead make sure that we’re ready for it.

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