This Christmas, it's not just the turkey that's stuffed to capacity. The roads, trains and buses will be jam-packed with travellers. The causes of congestion are numerous: bad weather, accidents, last-minute shoppers or tourists, but the underlying reality is that the UK's infrastructure is struggling to cope with demand. It's particularly noticeable at flash points like Christmas, but day-to-day commuters can recite tales of transport woe that would give Viking sagas a run for their money.
As one of the top 25 wealthiest nations, the UK ranks as the eighth most densely populated and as the fifth most congested. The ongoing demands we make of the country's infrastructure do not come cheap. Annually, congestion costs the UK £12 billion; road accidents cost £9.3 billion, and poor air quality costs between £4.5 and £10.6 billion.
The congestion conundrum is not a new one: the issue is clearly the key justification for building more expensive roads and motorways. However, whilst the UK will need to invest in infrastructure improvement in the near future, the Automotive Council believes that developing a 'third way' between new build and even legislating traffic off the roads is also important. We want to develop a transport strategy that will ensure that our current existing networks are being used in the most efficient manner possible.
The Automotive Council's latest report suggests that this third way is 'intelligent mobility'.
Intelligent mobility is a neologism coined in the report to describe any technology system that increases transport network capacity whilst simultaneously reducing accidents and pollution. The goal is to maximise the potential of existing networks, rather than rushing to supplement them before the problem is fully understood.
Intelligent mobility is happening already. A trend towards converged technology has merged the boundaries between smartphones, SatNavs, onboard sensors and data loggers. These devices and services are being mixed in novel, often informal ways. For example, the winners of this year's Microsoft Imagine Cup were the Irish designers of a smartphone app that plugs into the onboard computer, relays information over the mobile network to the cloud, where the data is compared to roadmaps, and then feeds back on the driver's performance. The app aims to improve road safety by rewarding good driving habits with 'prizes' such as offers for cheaper car insurance.
The key to intelligent mobility lies in connecting a range of independent industries and technologies such as vehicle manufacturing, transport information systems, communications technologies, logistics and distribution and infrastructure management. This convergence would not just represent a breakthrough in the way we think about, and manage, our infrastructure. It would also introduce a whole new way of collaborative, cross-industry working to the automotive sector.
The Automotive Council, working with the UK Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and the Department for Transport, is planning to hold a summit in April 2012 that will bring together all potential sectors and get the collaboration process underway. This will be the first time that the UK government, the automotive industry, and the other industry sectors have consciously worked together to figure out solutions to the infrastructure problem.
The ultimate goal for us is to see intelligent mobility woven into the very fabric of government and industry strategy. Intelligent mobility means being smarter about the way we travel - and, with luck, an end to festive traffic jams.