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Developments in transport technology

October 8, 2014

As part of a project we are doing for the Department for Transport, we are scanning the literature for new developments in transport technology. There’s a lot of fun stuff happening in this area, so we thought it would be good to share some highlights with everyone.

Cars and lorries

Most people will have heard about Google’s plans for an autonomous car – they’re even building a simulated world in which to test them. Many of the auto-manufacturers – Volvo, Ford, GM included – are working on similar concepts. Governments, including the UK, are reviewing the legislation required and starting to allow on-road testing.   But second order effects may also emerge – the FBI are concerned about their use as car-bombs, jay-walkers could cause chaos as the cars would have to be so safe as to stop automatically if someone steps out, the car insurance industry will need a complete overhaul.

Intermediate stages of “Vehicle-to-Vehicle” and “Vehicle to Infrastructure” communications are moving even faster. Cars which can parallel park automatically are already on the market, driver alert systems that detect you falling asleep or are getting too close to the car in front have been tested, and “platooning” systems which latch you on the vehicle in front are also in development.

Platooning is popular for lorries, as it reduces fuel consumption, but autonomous lorries may be even more commercially attractive. These could be long-distance ones travelling to local distribution centres, or local delivery services replacing couriers. The Netherlands have announced trials, Sweden has invested heavily in test tracks for these innovations.


Amazon are also looking at changing the courier business, using drones to deliver packages up to 3kg. Many people thought this a PR stunt when it was first announced, but Amazon have made formal applications to the FAA and have announced test flights in India. Drones are now being used more a huge range of applications, from environmental monitoring (the RSPB are using silent drones to check on bird populations), to checking for aircraft damage (Easyjet reducing turnround times) and searching for disaster survivors. Aerial photography is perhaps the most common application.

But like autonomous cars, there are regulatory issues. Safety is a major concern, as there have been several near misses with aircraft, and many crashes. In the UK one drone operator was fined for losing control of his drone which then crashed near a nuclear facility. Privacy is also an issue as aerial stalking becomes a possibility.

Crewless ships

If you thought autonomous cars were futuristic, how about crewless ships? Unmanned submarines are to be used for oceanographic surveys and Rolls-Royce are looking at unmanned cargo ships. The idea is that without a crew there would be no incentive for pirates to take hostages (and of course it would be cheaper!) but cyber-terrorism would no doubt replace the pirates.


We also picked up on some things happening in other PEST categories:

  • 10% of all sales are now online, and supermarket chains are opening convenience stores. The need for quick response times is affecting patterns of distribution and optimum locations for warehouses; same-day delivery will also have a big impact
  • The millennial generation is less interested in owning a car. From 2007 to 2011, the number of cars purchased in the US by people aged 18 to 34, fell almost 30%, only 44% of teenagers obtain a driver’s license within the first year of becoming eligible and just half, 54% are licensed before turning 18. Companies like ZipCar, are tapping into is trend.
  • Pregnant women are at higher risk of serious car accidents – a study of 500,00 pregnant women showed that those in the second trimester had a 42% higher rate of serious car accidents than the baseline; and
  • Robots are being developed that can work alongside people – “cobots”. The robots are able to sense what people around them are doing and to modify their movements or stop altogether if required.

Transport is such an integral part of the economy, affecting urban design, health, and many other factors as well as GDP that major changes there could affect a wide range of industries.

Written by Huw Williams.

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