Transport and technology have long had a symbiotic relationship. Consider, for example, how the development of new types of steel changed the railways. Or think how the motor car was the catalyst for new Ford-style production processes that changed a wide variety of industries. Even the most ambitious form of transport, the space race has led to significant innovations such as, bizarrely, smoke detectors and velcro. In the other direction, many technologies developed for other purposes, notably steam engines and computer-based signalling systems, have greatly improved rail services.
This relationship has led to the widespread expectation that the new technologies of the digital age will improve transport. Barely a day goes by without media coverage of new inventions that will make travel so much easier, like a never-ending episode of Tomorrow’s World.
It is all too easy to get carried away—but a closer examination of these innovations suggest many will face the same fate as those personal rocket packs that were going to save me from my daily Tube commute.
Take driverless cars. If the early publicity from Waymo, Google’s autonomous vehicle division, was to be believed, then we would all soon be in shared-use driverless electric pods. This would reduce car ownership by 90 per cent and congestion would become a thing of the past. Yet the obstacles to such a nirvana are legion. Start with the great uncertainty even within the industry over whether a truly driverless car, able to negotiate everything from a bustling high street to an unmarked farm track will ever be feasible. More mundane problems, such as how these cars will distinguish a row of parked cars from a traffic jam, or sort out who will reverse when they meet on a single carriageway country road, may be equally unsolvable. And do people really want shared pods rather than their own car?
Hyperloops, too, suffer from equally fundamental problems despite the optimistic statements from Elon Musk, their greatest protagonist. The pods in the hyperloop funnels are supposed to take groups of, say, 30 people at speeds up to 760mph, enabling them to cover vast distances faster than planes. But again, even a cursory examination of the claims by Musk and his peers raises questions. For instance, the capacity of the system which will be very expensive to build and even costlier to run as maglev requires huge amounts of energy, would according to transport writer Gareth Dennis, “be about 3,600 people per hour, akin to an average tram system.”
A 500km system linking Helsinki with Stockholm has been put forward with a cost of £19bn and a construction period of 12-15 years, a price and time frame that are ridiculously optimistic given the technical difficulties of a new and unproven technology. While there have been announcements of projects as far afield as Maharastra and California, there is no sign of a workable system being built.
The problem is how these new ideas and technologies can possibly fit into our everyday lives. Who, for example, wants a pizza delivered by a driverless car given that the customer would have to go out onto the street, possibly in pouring rain, to pick up the food? Or how will Amazon’s drones knock on my door to tell me that my books have arrived but are too big to get through the letter box?
I don’t want to seem Luddite. Lots of technological innovations are already improving the transport experience, such as providing live information on bus and train timetables, providing apps and text messages to keep passengers up to date with any delays. These are, though, incremental changes that attract little publicity but, on the plus side, are cheap and realistic. Dockless bicycle hire schemes, and even e-bikes, for example, may have a far greater impact on the urban realm than more complex technological developments.
The problem for the revolutionary new projects is that the basics of transport remain unchanged. Moving people around is difficult and cumbersome, requiring heavy and costly equipment and no end of clever new devices can get round that problem. In fact, my grandchildren are as likely to be travelling in an all-driverless world or jumping in a hyperloop pod to get across continents as they are to be teleported to the moon.
Politicians need to bear this in mind before they hop on the technology bandwagon.