Road to somewhere

A visitor from the 1950s would be justifiably amazed by the advances that have been made in transport systems. Our cars, trains, boats and aircraft are faster, more comfortable and more accessible than many would have anticipated.

Yet despite this, the boggle-eyed reaction of our tourist from the past to the performance and technology of today’s vehicles might well be tinged with a little disappointment. Where are the hover cars, the driverless taxis and the highways in the sky predicted by the science fiction writers of their post-war world?

Well, while it may not quite match up to the wildest imaginings of the 1950s futurologist, the crowds flocking into this week’s Intelligent Transport Systems congress at London’s Excel centre have seen plenty of technology that it’s really worth getting excited about.

From lane keeping assistants, to collision mitigation systems and traffic monitoring UAVs, the common thread of many of the projects discussed at the congress was removing, or at least reducing, the capacity for driver error. In other words, developing autonomous systems that can take control of a vehicle when it’s deemed that the driver is tired, veering off course, or about to crash into something.

The aim is improved safety, but taking all of this technology development to its logical conclusion, it’s not completely impossible to imagine a future where the potential for driver error has been completely removed by completely removing the driver – a vision perhaps more in tune with our historical visitor’s expectations.

But back to the present. Delegates snigger as a Transport for London executive arrives 10 minutes late for his presentation, puffing and panting and cursing the public transport system that has held him up. Outside the conference centre, departing delegates attempt to fathom the mysteries of the docklands light railway. The contrast between its “hi-tech” driverless vehicles and meandering routes another mocking reminder of how far we are from a transport system that lives up to the sci-fi vision.

Jon Excell

Features Editor

The Engineer