I was fortunate to hear Bernadette Kelly, Permanent Secretary at the Department for Transport, speak at a recent Whitehall & Industry Group breakfast on the work the DfT is doing to address the transport challenges of now and the future.
Along with the usual suspects like HS2, the Rail Review and the impact of devolution, mobility also got a mention as a priority area.
It was a timely mention - the DfT has just announced a round of funding to create a Future Mobility Area in the West Midlands. The money will fun research and development of apps, services and projects to improve mobility across the region.
In my opinion, solving the mobility problems facing the UK has to be a priority for government. Many bus services are struggling to remain viable, trains are still unreliable in many places and, for rural communities, getting from A to B is not just painful, it could be impacting on people's mental health.
But hidden at the end of the press release announcing the new funding for the West Midlands is a note that they're already researching the options for connected and autonomous vehicles, and whilst autonomous vehicles are exciting, it's the connected bit that's important.
Think about a normal journey to the shops.
You drive from to a car park. Park the car. Enjoy a few hours at the shops. Pay for parking. Drive home.
If you're on your own, during that time you're using road space whilst you drive to the shops and back, but during your shopping trip you're paying for the pleasuring of leaving your car somewhere safe.
However, in the world of autonomous vehicles, who needs parking! You'll now have the option to send your car home or just leave your car driving somewhere quiet, avoiding parking fees but vastly increasing the number of journeys your car is taking. This imbalance, if left unchecked, could lead to chaos as driverless cars vastly increase the number of journeys they're making.
The rise of autonomous cars therefore has to be matched with a reduction in ownership and an increase in the use of ride sharing, taxis and smarter public transport. Only by aggregating journeys and making it easier to "rent" than to "buy" road space by owning a car, will we avoid congestion and zombie cars roaming our streets! (maybe that last bit is a little over exaggeration...)
The West Midlands has begun to emerge as a leading region for developing new approaches to transport: a trio of public sector organisations in the region, including TfWM, recently joined a consortium to test connected vehicles, and last month it announced plans to spend on technology to reduce traffic congestion. The DfT is currently analysing feedback from its consultation on its Future of Urban Mobility strategy, which is looking at how technology can provide new ways of moving people around cities. It has said the outcome should be available soon.