Chief Scientific Adviser says technology is at the heart of transport

The Department for Transport’s Chief Scientific Adviser has told the Transport Technology Forum conference that technology is crucial in delivering the transport networks of the future.

Professor Sarah Sharples joined the Department in July last year to provide independent challenge and support, making the connection between the work in the Department, industry, Local Authorities and academia.

“We are seeing evolution and revolution in transport,” she told the Conference in Liverpool.  “We are seeing a revolutionary change in the way we travel,” talking about autonomy and how vehicles are powered.

She said the priorities are environment, improving transport for the user, global impacts, and levelling up and growing the economy.

Prof Sharples discussed the role of technology in how we design the transport system to ensure it is putting users at its heart.  “There is a balance between responding to user needs, understanding and diversity… and where we need to change behaviour – how do we think about how we provide transport to encourage more spread of transport use to cope with capacity.

“If someone say we should talk about education and information, I get a little bit cross.  There’s a lot we can do about how we design our transport to accommodate and influence behaviour.”

Talking about emerging technology, she discussed AI and autonomy, along with position, navigation and timing and also quantum technologies, where they are trying to understand the possibilities and risks.

“We’re also seeing technologies that are slightly closer to market,” she continued. “One of the programmes that I’m a huge fan of within this parliament is Future Transport Zones that many of you will be familiar with. It’s a coalition in many cases of Local Authorities to explore in a practical context, the use of new technologies and think about the specific use case that they have, and how new technologies might help.

“An example of this in the Solent where they’re looking at the opportunity of using drone technologies to deliver medical supplies because of the particular geographical challenge that they have. But we see other examples through Future Transport Zones that are looking at implementation of new data solutions to manage traffic, or other types of innovations that can improve the traveller and the customer experience.

“But I think one of the things that’s really really important is that… we use forums like this to extract and share that learning. One of the things that I found since I joined the Department is there was loads of brilliant stuff going on but people do not know about. So one of my jobs is to take that brilliant research from out of the drawers it’s been sitting in and… broaden it, and share that understanding.”

Talking of Net Zero, Prof Sharples talked about the behaviour change we will require, about electric or hydrogen vehicles, and making people care about their emissions.

She touched on infrastructure, including how technology is helping improve programmes like HS2, how to replace roadside signing with in-vehicle signage.

“I think we need a complete mindset change,” she continued.  “I’m interested in the fact that we have a Transport Technology Forum. and it’s not just the Transport Forum, because actually, I fail to find any part of our transport system that doesn’t have technology at its heart anymore. I don’t think we should be thinking about roads as being civil infrastructure – I think they are civil and digital infrastructure.  We have seen this in railways and we’ve seen it for many years and aviation.

“The final thing I want us to reflect on is that actually we can’t think about technology in isolation,” she concluded. “It sits within a wider societal, legal and economic context. And so it’s really important that they understand the role of technology within Net Zero within active travel – walking and cycling – within the levelling up agenda, because that’s the way in which we will get this technology implemented and effective to transform the transport system in the way that I know we’re all looking to see.”

(Picture – TTF)


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