The Transport Systems Catapult is working to ensure that Britain is at the forefront of ‘Intelligent Mobility’, a shakeup of the travel sector so profound it will rival the advent of trains and commercial jet aircraft.
Although definitions vary, it describes the use of big data, machine learning and technologies such as autonomous vehicles to create cleaner, more efficient, more user-orientated ways of getting around. It envisages different modes of transport being properly integrated; on-demand shuttles taking the place of under-used private cars; and people carrying pods connecting with bus and train stations to provide ‘last mile’ mobility for commuters, shoppers, the elderly or disabled. Car manufacturer BMW puts the value of Intelligent Mobility services at $10 trillion per year.
Before its Lutz Pathfinder could be tested on the streets of Milton Keynes, TSC worked with the town’s authorities to re-classify areas of pavement so the pod could share space with pedestrians and cyclists. Going through normal planning procedures would have added two years to the project timeline.
TSC provided an exemplar for government and the insurance industry to study and base new rules upon. The UK is now recognised as being one of the best places in the world to test autonomous vehicles and, as a result, Nissan and Volvo are among the international automotive firms that have since brought significant parts of their R&D programmes here. Meanwhile, Oxbotica, one of the Pathfinder consortium partners, spun out from Oxford University, is capitalizing on its experience by opening offices in Singapore and Australia.
Toby Hiles, TSC Strategy Director, sums it up: “From small beginnings in Autumn 2013 we helped create the conditions for half a billion pounds to be invested in this area, by government and industry. We have created critical mass. That’s our job done so we move on.”
The goal of Catapults is not to support a small number of individual companies, or even spin out new businesses, but to grow entire sectors. That means being selective when considering which projects to take on and what firms to invest time in. Having a scalable idea is clearly important but so too is finding a partner with ambition.
Dr Sabrina Malpede has both.