Smarter and greener cars will transform travel

A century ago, Henry Ford's Model T heralded a new era of transport. Ford's vision was to "democratise the automobile".

He wanted to take the horse off the highways, render an old, unreliable, dirty form of transport obsolete, and make journeys faster, cleaner and easier. He said: "When I'm through, everybody will be able to afford one, and about everybody will have one."
He sold 16 million cars. And in doing so, changed the world.

It is rare for a minister to be able to look across his brief and see that we stand on the brink of another historic transformation. But that is indeed where we find ourselves today, 100 years on from the Model T. We aim again to democratise transport and make vehicles clean. This has profound implications for the future of travel. Technology is changing with the development of driverless and electric cars, and we are also changing as consumers.

Connected and automated vehicles will alter the nature of journeys, making them simpler and safer, while also helping traffic flow more smoothly through our towns and cities. Imagine today's congested roads with far fewer vehicles, yet transporting the same volume of people. And the future is closer than many people think, with driverless car testing already under way in Milton Keynes, Coventry, Bristol and London.

We have to be forward-thinking to anticipate the opportunities and challenges of this new age. An effective partnership of public, private and civic authorities that is willing and eager to be at the forefront of change will achieve this transformation. Important trials are feeding research to identify the key social and behavioural considerations associated with automated vehicles. The Government's Modern Transport Bill will lay the foundations for future policy. We must guarantee too that British workers, with the necessary skills, benefit.

By 2050, we also want to ensure that almost every car and van on our roads is zero emission, reversing decades of pollution. This is not about some high-flown notion of the planet's future in centuries to come, but driven by the need now to make the air we breathe cleaner. We are preparing related infrastructure, with grants for workplace and on-street charging points. We are reducing the cost of electric vehicles to consumers through the plug-in car grant. And we are investing in eight Go Ultra Low cities.

Change is happening. London Fire Brigade has replaced all its cars with electric BMW i3s. By next year, Microsoft UK aims to make one-fifth of its entire fleet electric. Sales of cars eligible for the plug-in grant have soared by almost a third this year.

But there is a third great opportunity, perhaps the most significant of all. As we introduce new technologies and invest in road infrastructure, we have a chance to reconsider the aesthetics of what we build. In the post-war years, the pressure of developing our trunk road network to meet the rapid rise in the number of cars left the principles of good design largely ignored. We came to accept – wrongly, of course – that roads and motorways must be necessarily ugly. The result was infrastructure which forged a fatal disconnect between society and the environment.

Now we have a first chance to improve the aesthetic of what we build for the common good. Just consider what's happened at railway stations like St Pancras, King's Cross and Manchester Victoria. After decades in which we allowed design to become substandard, soul-sapping and drab, we've rediscovered that station architecture can lift and delight the senses.

Similarly, Victorian railway infrastructure is loved in a way that modern motorways are not because structures were built according to time-honoured architectural principles, and often worked in harmony with the natural environment. It's time we applied these lessons and brought fresh thinking to road design too. Ours can be a new age of elegance.

From motorways and bypasses to service stations and bus terminals, road architecture need not be miserable and alienating. As new infrastructure is developed, it will be the duty of government to ensure it is as sympathetic to the landscape in which it stands as it can be. Indeed, I have already begun to put in place changes to help us achieve that objective. The success of all we do should be measured by the wellbeing of those who are affected.

Smarter and greener transportation is going to transform the way we travel and ultimately the way we live. The opportunities are extraordinary. And one century on from the Model T, Henry Ford would surely be enthused, excited and enthralled by the prospects.

Reference: Transport Times October 2016 Issue

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