Battle-scarred commuters are a testament to infrastructure buckling under the strain of carrying an ever-growing number of passengers – but is hope at hand? Miriam Howe explores the impact of technology on the transport systems of the future
Today offered a vivid reminder as to why I normally cycle to the office. Forced to take the train, I spent the entire journey standing up in an overcrowded, overheated carriage and counting down the moments until the doors opened and I could make good my escape. I suppose I should count my blessings. Compared to those in the North, Londoners are in a comparatively fortunate position. And yet even with this extra government investment, the infrastructure appears to be at full capacity, delays continue and, like clockwork, fares grow more exorbitant every January.
It seems pertinent, then, to consider how transport systems are going to cope with an ever growing population. Public funding is far from limitless and while more people are likely to join me in cycle lanes, that’s only one element. Of more significance is the shifting role of technology – and the opportunities and risks it presents.
Life in the digital lane
Transport operators commonly have to make use of existing infrastructure, often deploying technological solutions to optimise its usage such as moving from box signalling to trains signalling to each other, rather than via the infrastructure. This, for example, enables the UK’s national rail network to be shared by high speed, low speed and slow freight trains.
Such changes are by no means limited to rail travel, however. With autonomous vehicles edging closer to reality, there is also an increasing proliferation of internet connected devices at the roadside. No wonder Mary Barra, CEO and Chairman of General Motors has predicted that the car industry “will change more in the next five to 10 years than it has in the last 50”.
Although such changes can herald tremendous improvements in comfort and efficiency, technological breakthroughs also expand the attack surface by opening up new opportunities for cyber attackers. The good news, though, is that industry is brimming with research to understand the nature of such vulnerabilities – and identify fresh answers.
One example is the rapid development of image analytics – enhanced by machine learning – which can be used to model crowd behaviour in an airport, platform or train station. This will then improve security and safety, help plan maintenance with improved efficiency, and reduce the recurrence of incidents – all of which are vital for increasing capacity and avoiding the delays that blight too many of today’s journeys.
Although more remains to be done to secure CCTV and GPS, much progress is being made in safeguarding the different areas of the infrastructure providing interconnected and intelligent transport systems. And protecting the communications between vehicles, as well as the decision making process within autonomous systems, may be nascent but is certainly underway.
But let’s face it, a major barrier to the widespread deployment of something like autonomous vehicles is human scepticism. Think about it. Would you get into a driverless car and be confident that it would transport you securely to wherever you want to go? For now, I suspect the answer for many would be “no”.
Overcoming the justified concerns of the public rests on establishing a trusting and seamless relationship between the human and the computer controlling the vehicle. Progress is being made. Take the Venturer trials, for example. Here, a partnership of academic, public and private experts – including BAE Systems – has assessed users’ responses to the introduction of driverless cars. Ultimately, humans need to be comfortable with outsourcing the decision making to the machine because our involvement is likely to end in more accidents.
Such a scenario will take time. But remember, we’ve gotten used to driver aids such as power steering and cruise control, and more recent advances like automatic parking and driver drowsiness detection are fast taking root. So, we’re already well on the way to autonomous vehicles – even though perhaps we don’t realise it.
There’s no doubt that the adoption and implementation of autonomy and machine learning adds another level of complexity and uncertainty that sits uncomfortably with the safety critical nature of public transport systems.
But with government funding constrained and ever more people filling station concourses and packing out train carriages, it is clear that this is no time for timidity. Crafting a transport system of the future won’t happen overnight, and nor will it happen without the steady and safe deployment of technological solutions.
Tomorrow’s commuters are counting on it.
BAE Systems Applied Intelligence Labs has developed agent-based models of humans and their everyday patterns of life, enabling the creation of large datasets of actors and their activities.