Don’t look back in anger…

Thinking Highways
By Thinking Highways February 10, 2016 17:05

Don’t look back in anger…

Like Thinking Highways, Andy Graham has just celebrated a 10-year anniversary, having launched his White Willow consultancy in 2006. In this article he looks back on the changes to our industry, both from a professional view and as a “customer “ – and looks forward to the next decade

Let me start off boldly. There have been few really large changes that have turned our industry, far fewer than we expected in 2005 and the pace of overall change has been slow in most areas. I know that’s a strong opinion, but 10 years ago most of my projects were quite similar to my work today.

As an example, I am still working on assessing the impacts and hence overall business case for connected and automated vehicles. The terminology we use about them and the technology they have on board have clearly changed, and there are far more near-to-market vehicles today, but the same basic questions remain – will they really improve capacity of roads? How will they be adopted and by whom? How do we bring them into fleets of existing vehicles?

Another area of inertia is the continued siloed thinking across big organisations. While some work has been done on systems of systems thinking and wider approaches to transport, I still see so many more untapped opportunities to join up technology, services, policies and payment methods.  I think this is an impact of the organisational models in transport rather than an inherent desire to keep things apart. I’ll discuss mobility as a service later as some say this may be a step change.

Congestion hasn’t gone away. While the road network as a whole is probably as efficient as its ever been due to use of all-lane running, the millions of sat navs with traffic data, better control and monitoring and better management, we still have traffic congestion at more or less the same spots and times. There are a few exceptions – like removing toll barriers on the M25 in London and Dublin and replacing with freeflow tolls, but by and large congestion is still there. Traffic volumes have grown and the economic cycles have impacted freight volumes, but I’ll bet a congestion map from 2005 and 2015 for most cities hasn’t changed.  My rail journey to London is slower than in 2005, to allow more time for the train to be late, and there’s even less chance of a seat. This is despite all the 2005 predictions of more teleworking and conference calls.


Safety has changed for the good, though. We see fewer fatalities on the roads in countries like the UK (although the downwards trend is perhaps flattening out, but more proportionately in cyclists and vulnerable road users). Safe vehicles, safer drivers through education, enforcement and different attitudes are all working for safety of vehicles and drivers, but there is a gap in those outside cars.

A final area of inertia is the emphasis still on owning technology for “ITS”, rather than buying a service. I still see a core in the DNA of many ITS practitioners to own a grey box with flashing LEDs rather than buy a service that gives the same outcomes the box delivers – eg, data on traffic, better signal timings. This is now starting to change but it has been slower than I expected. In contrast, many people now lease their private cars rather than buy them , and then just trade them in after three years for a better model, avoiding maintenance and depreciation costs – a model that’s caught on in consumer land but not yet fully in ITS. The large scale multiyear Private Finance Initiative projects of the past are now fewer thankfully, as clients have questioned the value they really get. I am pleased to see many new initiatives that merge the “buy a service” approach without the extra legal and banking costs of a PFI and hope they succeed.


But a real key change is that we talk about “ITS” as a solution very much less than in 2005. It is now an integral part of transport – Google have an app that gets you about but it doesn’t mention ITS or even transport. Many of the “ITS” ideas we had a decade ago are now mainstream tools for transport – journey times from vehicles, apps for payment, alerts for disruptions.

There have also been some big changes beyond simply what we call things – “smart cities” has seen the value of intelligence beyond just transport for example by bringing in health and energy. Another big change is that “smart logistics” has replaced “ITS for freight” – with far more adoption of tracking and scheduling solutions and integration with business needs. In 2006 the value in fleet management was in a dedicated tracker – now the value is in processing data from a smartphone or device built into the vehicle on the production line. This maturity of the business from product to service is business driven.

The emerging Mobility as a Service approach doesn’t use the term ITS at all. This is indicative of one of the major changes – far more of a focus on what customers want to solve a problem rather than the technology being pushed to solve a problem they don’t know they have. Google has mastered this in terms of travel information but others have too – smarter parking and car hire on the spot solve real customer problems (and have a revenue stream). Much of this change to a customer focus should be credited at least in the UK to the much missed Transport Direct – a service than came to its peak of value and went away in the 10 years covered by this article and since the inception of my independence and the launch of Thinking Highways.


Ten years ago we spoke in sat nav terms of in-vehicle systems and personal devices as hardware – we know think of apps and smartphones. We thought of in-vehicle toll payment as either coins, paper tickets, highly developed GNSS on board units and DSRC tags, now we think of smartphone apps again, RFID stickers and automatic payment. There are so many other areas where technology has changed – in essence mainstream consumer or industrial devices now do the job of a previously dedicated “ITS” device, and they do it cheaper, better and in a more joined up way. The smartphone is now the universal device and the connectivity and payment it brings means the convergence we dreamt about in 2005 is here today. The creep of business and retail into transport will continue until we won’t be able to tell what is ITS anymore (or care).

The other big change is actually what underlying transport is. We may have reached peak car use in the UK in this 10-year period, and there is much more use now of rail, cycling and even low-cost airlines than we perhaps expected. The car of today is sold not as a way of getting from A to B, but being connected while you travel. If you don’t believe me watch some adverts on TV for mainstream cars like the GM Astra, Seat or the Citroen DS – they hardly mention if the car is good to drive, safe or economical as they did in 2005, but what they do show is how you can listen to your music and texts while you drive. I see this trend continuing to expand and the connected vehicle providing another layer of opportunity – more data from the roadside, and more information to the vehicle. We should not let the inertia in services like eCall put us off – people will pay for a 4G connection in car as it has a clear benefit ( the kids no longer ask “are we nearly there yet” as they can find out for themselves).

Looking forward, I see connected vehicles impacting all over our industry. Existing traffic signals will work better with data from vehicles, added to existing sensors like loops. Drivers will spend less time circulating looking for parking spaces and even better route-finding capability will give them a better service.


But as for Mobility as a Service, I wonder if this will become as well supported as some people suggest? I simply can’t see how a business can make money integrating various siloed elements of transport to make the seamless journey and offer the level of service to the customer they will expect when things go wrong.

Looking at the UK rail model as an example, with refunds for delays and huge customer service costs, where is there a margin to be made on linking a rail ticket and offering a single invoice without increasing customer costs? If MaaS is such a strong business idea, wouldn’t Virgin (who already own most of the elements rail, airline, bank and broadband/ mobile phone, with strong customer service ethos) already have done it? I would love to be proved wrong but models that work in other industries like power and telecoms (and I mean work in terms of making money) don’t seem to work in transport. The business model, replacing cheap single user vehicles with cheap drivers (lets call them taxis or Uber) for expensive driverless vehicles, doesn’t seem all that strong to me.

But what I am sure about is that in 2025 ITS will have disappeared. We will have merged into transport, mobility, smart cities, automated vehicles and logistics. And I hope Thinking Highways will still cover them all. Happy anniversary.


Andy Graham is the founder of White Willow Consulting

Thinking Highways
By Thinking Highways February 10, 2016 17:05