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Daniel Ruiz, Zenzic (formerly Meridian) CEO, was recently featured in the first issue of the Smart Transport Magazine. In the feature, Daniel discusses infrastructure, collaboration and the UK developments to outline the changes that are needed for the future of mobility.

For the full article, please read below.

Steering the Transport Revolution

Are we in control of the future? No – but we can certainly influence it. Saying we are going to transform society is ignoring the fact that we are travelling with significant velocity and all we can do is nudge the steering, accelerate or brake. In truth, a confluence of accelerators is at play: societal, economic and technological. There are enormous pressures to achieve greater purpose, greater safety and less stress, combined with greater productivity and greater wealth at lower cost. And these outcomes are enabled by technological advances that mean that transport (or the emerging ‘science’ of mobility) is driving a social revolution. So even if we do not have control we do have influence.

For any of those who think of themselves as engineer philosophers, politicians, or social scientists, this is an immensely exciting time. It is undeniable that there are massive theoretical efficiencies and benefits to be had by making all transport connected, automated, shared and electric (CASE). This potential is reflected in the forecast value of the road-based mobility market: between £900 million and £1.4 trillion by 2035.

The reality is that we are only just moving up the first part of the maturity curve and we will not achieve mobile nirvana for a long time. Stating with conviction when we will get there is not that important. What is important is to enable progress and to ensure we can frequently adjust our direction: taking what in product development might be termed a ‘sprint’ approach. Mobility is indeed the key to productivity, prosperity and purpose. But mobility is also a multi-dimensional, multi-sector (and some may say chaotic) concept, which needs to be tackled on many fronts.

A vehicle-centric view of the world illustrates how the challenge has become more complex. With the evolution of artificial intelligence and telecommunications, the value chain of a decade or so ago has evolved dramatically; from one involving vehicle technologies, hardware, and data platforms, to one which also needs to accommodate, connectivity, autonomous drive software, mapping, the human machine interface, cyber security, transport systems, and other enabling products, services and systems. A comprehensive, holistic approach is essential.

The temptation is to create stronger silos to make the problem more manageable (“Ignore the complexity: compromise and strive for mediocrity!”). But this approach would fail, leaving us as slaves to internationally developed solutions to the mobility challenge: having to import rather than self-supply the products and services which we cannot do without.

But there is another paradox at play: no country can develop mobility solutions at the optimal rate without collaborating with others. And there are areas such as safety which are of universal importance and where independent working would be irresponsible. This is a global challenge and to be among the winners we have to collaborate with others at the global top table. To make optimal progress we also need focus.

This requires leadership as shown in the UK by the Automotive Council, representing the whole of the industry from original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) to suppliers to unions. Their example complements the leadership shown by government through the Centre for Connected and Autonomous Vehicles (CCAV) which, uniquely, has roots in both the Departments for Business and for Transport.

Industry, government and academia have come together behind the UK’s industrial strategy and its four pillars:

  • Artificial Intelligence
  • Ageing Population
  • Clean Growth
  • Future of Mobility

Building on this, we have an evolving regulatory landscape and major investment programmes which are underpinned by a maturing testing & development environment (coordinated by Meridian Mobility UK). A wide cross-section of UK industry is now gathered behind this movement, further reinforcing the momentum we have in the UK and realising the dividends from our collaborative culture. As a result, we truly have the potential to be a global leader in this transport revolution. But there is a very long way to go in designing our mobile future, and we are entering what is often referred to as the ‘valley of death’ in innovation circles. This is when great concepts struggle to make it to the commercial stage because success only comes when all the pieces on the table are ready to be slotted together.

One of the pieces is transport infrastructure. This has lagged behind vehicle development and is arguably putting achievement of the wider social and economic benefits at risk. There is an undeniable tension between the phenomenal rate of development of 21st century mobility solutions (including traffic technologies and app-based services or ‘intelligent infrastructure’), and the persisting decade-scale lifecycle of roads and other large, high cost, low return on investment, ‘unintelligent’ infrastructure.

The slow rate of decision-making in traditional transport circles is understandable and it has been argued that the lifecycle issue applies to the automotive industry too. From memory, the standardised Ford Product Development System (FPDS) used to state that a facelift should take 24-36 months, and a full new vehicle programme would take at least five years from concept to ‘Job 1+90 days’. But the current truth is that a company like NIO in China can get from nothing to medium-scale manufacture of a mature vehicle in three years. This must be because they are tearing up some of the conventions. It may be because there are some compromises being made on quality or functionality.

The fact remains that they are halving the product development time. I suspect the main reason they are able to do this is because they are taking a novel, integrated and lean approach. Nothing new: look at Lockheed’s World War II Skunk Works projects. What drove those pioneers in rapid product development was the desired outcome: they urgently needed a new aircraft to win a war.

If you look at the current levels of autonomy, we are well on our way from Level 0 where the driver controls all aspects of a vehicle. Many cars will now assist drivers in some way. But we are still a long way from achieving the levels of safety that a widely connected, judiciously automated system can deliver. The transition to wide scale deployment of SAE Levels 3, 4 and 5 can only be optimised by evolution and integration of the whole transport system: a so-called ’system of systems’ approach. The vehicle, infrastructure and commercial model are inseparable.

The first of these elements is maturing rapidly, the second is behind the curve, and the third is dependent on the first two. Transport authorities have a collective responsibility and need to be able to manage mobility for the wider community; managing congestion, safety, emissions, health, cost of travel and assets. The latest versions of adaptive traffic control systems (e.g. SCOOT, SCATS), video-analytics and other technologies can already be called upon along with pricing models and other economic measures to help influence traffic patterns and traveller behaviours. But highway authorities are more likely to spend millions on resurfacing and widening (with a return on investment of around 2.5:1) than implementation of technology based solutions to congestion management (with a return on investment of more than 10:1).

I have been told by executives at a major highway authority that this is because the low tech projects have a more dramatic impact on GDP and enable VIPs to do some vote-earning ‘ribbon cutting’! There are members of the vehicle crowd that won’t wait for infrastructure to catch up, so they are trying to take it out of their complex equation. Reassuringly, the fast movers in the mobility movement are not unanimous in their antipathy towards infrastructure. Google AI evangelist Andrew Ng wrote in 2016: “Safe autonomous cars will require modest infrastructure changes, designs that make them easily recognised and predictable, and that pedestrians and human drivers understand how computer driven cars behave.” Others in the same space have acknowledged the insights that can be provided by intelligent infrastructure and which can, on one hand, accelerate the maturation of connected and autonomous vehicles and, on the other, provide means for transport authorities and operators to influence traffic and manage mobility for society. The good news is that this tension is beginning to make key players sit up and rethink their business models – where there is hiatus and higher levels of risk there is a need for leadership and shared investment.

So, in summary, society is going to transform whatever happens. We can influence the rate and direction in which it moves and there are enormous social and economic benefits to be achieved if we influence with adequate commitment. Therefore, my priority list for accelerating this social revolution (driven by transport) is: First, to develop intelligent infrastructure in tandem with vehicles and service models to ensure rapid transition to the future state. Second, to collaborate: nationally to ensure the sum of the parts is greater than any other country’s ‘whole’, but also globally on critical topics (especially those linked to safety) to ensure we can exploit the potential to save lives through safer roads and reduced environmental impact. And finally, we should use the UK’s diverse, accessible and integrated development environment to carry out experiments which explore the potential of emerging technologies rapidly and courageously. A few fast (safe) failures from which we learn will be to the credit of the leaders that inspire us to remain at the vanguard.

Daniel, CEO Meridian

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