World Tour: start your engines on digital disruption in transport

Every year we take our Fujitsu World Tour on the road, packing the show up each night to cart it around 22 countries across the world via planes, trains and automobiles. As you might imagine, there are some considerable transport logistics involved.

But this kind of effort pales in comparison to what’s required to steer millions of people around the country and through our cities day in, day out, throughout the year.

I was joined at the London leg of this year’s World Tour by Tony Malone, CIO at Highways England, Alan Bristow, director of road space management at Transport for London, and Justin Stenner, head of technology at Heathrow Express – all people who understand the growing challenges of keeping the country moving.

Disruption is unfortunately a word that all of us working in the transport sector are more than familiar with. But on Tuesday we joined together to discuss a very different type of disruption – one that ultimately is aimed at reducing the kinds of problems that cause commuters to tweet their discontent.

There’s one thing that we could all agree on: digital disruption is here.

There’s some concern in the industry, however, that the transport sector is not yet ready for what’s ahead. Our recent Digital Inside Out report placed transport well at the bottom of the pile in terms of digital service provision when compared with the likes of financial and even government services.

Getting the green light for digital

Digital disruption in the retail and banking sectors has been typified by a rebalancing of customer service relationships. Customers increasingly want to be able to access services wherever they are and whenever they want, and to bend them around their busy daily lives.

Transport will undoubtedly be next to face this digital overhaul. Intelligent mobility and the future of our transport networks are hot topics, featuring in the last two Budgets and the Queen’s most recent address to the nation.

Passengers will increasingly ‘consume’ mobility on an individual, on-demand, door-to-door basis, as opposed to submitting to the whims of traditional existing networks.

This includes moving goods – grocery shopping, or that book you just bought from Amazon – as well as their own bodies from A directly to B. And if they can save money while doing so, then all the better.

Companies such as Uber, Lyft, Hailo and Zipcar are already highlighting this potential for digital disruption within our industry. What they’re offering are digital tools that make access to transport services easier and, this is the key, more personal.

Ultimately, it follows the old adage of putting the customer first. But what, in the transport industry, does putting the customer first really mean?

All of us on Tuesday’s panel agreed safety is, and will always be, the primary priority. Beyond that, it’s about providing travellers with the most comfortable and efficient service possible.

The current disruptors in the industry have taken this customer-focused approach to an extreme realisation.

Uber, for instance, is not managing the network or the car, but managing the individual passenger and communicating directly with them via personal tech to discover and respond to their needs.

Whilst clearly it is not possible – nor would it be practical or even, arguably, useful – for organisations such as Highways England, TfL and Heathrow Express to adopt this ‘network-less’ model. However there are certainly things to be learned from the granular customer-centric approach of the current cohort of digital disruptors.

The open data opportunity

Tony and Alan both highlighted the potential benefits of an open data approach, working with mobile networks and social media platforms to better understand the way people move within the transport network.

From Tony in particular, he said as far as Highways England is concerned, innovation in technology is as much about enabling other, often smaller companies to develop the solutions needed to improve network use efficiency. Open data is vital in smoothing this process and improving accessibility.

Alan put forward CityMapper as a great example of this. The journey planning app relies on TfL data that’s fed into the London Datastore, a database that provides free access to datasets from the Greater London Authority.

Justin, meanwhile, spoke of the importance of ubiquitous connectivity to enable customers and service providers alike to make full use of mobile technology in providing and receiving data communications. This has already proven successful on the Heathrow Express route.

The direction of travel is the intelligent use of data and the ability to communicate and receive information from customers on an individual (though, in most cases, anonymised) basis. This will take us to more efficient, customer-centric transport networks, and eventually autonomous vehicles.

And it’s this destination that isn’t as far off as many commentators would have you believe. Highways England, Tony confirmed, is already investing £150m into the technology, and Alan referred to the same A2 Corridor trials that TfL is currently contributing to.

So-called ‘driverless cars’ rely on direct communication with both the network and other vehicles around them. This presents not only an issue of connectivity but also in working out what information should be shared between vehicles and the network.

The stakes in this case are high, and there was general acknowledgement on Tuesday that failure to address the challenges ahead could be pretty catastrophic for existing operators.

However, having autonomous vehicles roaming the country’s roads doesn’t necessarily represent the finish line for this disruptive phase. Alan is already considering what people might use their autonomous vehicles for when they’re not riding in them: imagine employing your car to spend the day working for Uber while you knuckle down in the office, for instance.

If one thing was clear from Tuesday’s discussion, its’s that there are no simple solutions to the problems faced by travel customers and the service providers looking after them.

This naturally makes it a great space for technology providers to be in. And, more so, for technology providers who are putting people at the heart of their innovations.

So all we can say is, bring on the future…

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