Moving forward: how can transport technologies succeed in the UK?
Nestled amid the speculation about and questionable humour within last week’s Budget speech were several announcements about transport technology. It was the latest indicator that the government wants to harness innovation to change how we travel. But what does it want, and are entrepreneurs able to provide it?
The government launched a £90m fund for Future Mobility Zones, to trial new forms of transport, digital payments and ticketing. There was also a release of research into public attitudes towards new road technologies. Small contributions alone, but both part of a wider plan to drive innovation.
The UK and London are global hubs for tech investment facing increasing competition. Transport innovators have seen controversies or difficulties with law and regulation which have made it difficult to grow. The challenge to Uber’s license in London is best known, but there are similar stories of regulatory obstacles and complications as varied as the tech itself: dockless bikes, e-scooters and driverless delivery services for example.
This is a glass half empty view. Almost every policymaker wants to grasp the opportunities that innovation provides. Most important is the opportunity to tackle congestion and pollution by reducing the use of private vehicles. This is one of the most serious issues worldwide and, alongside economic growth, is a key point innovators should emphasise.
It appears simple doesn’t it? But cynics can point out how many businesses have made these arguments and yet the speed of progress remains slow.
Part of the answer lies in the question of trust. Events of the early transport tech revolution have made this more difficult. There is increasing scrutiny of tech companies, whether related to tax and transparency, privacy or employment issues. In the case of transport, safety is critical. This is why innovators should take steps to explain themselves and anticipate these challenges early on.
The best technique is talking. Engaging politicians early on works well. Although not possible for all, some innovators have also piloted businesses in a limited fashion to ‘prove concept.’ Examples include dockless bike operators partnering with councils and Lime setting up in Milton Keynes. Communities often welcome conversations as ideas are being developed. This can also help identify local problems and position new companies as a solution. Perhaps most importantly, it can identify supportive stakeholders who politicians will listen to before making up their minds.
In many cases this early contact will go a long way. However, there is still the problem of unsuitable legislation and regulation stifling innovation. For example, dockless cycle hire promoters have to deal with each of London’s many local authorities to secure permits. At the opposite end of the debate, Mayor Sadiq Khan cannot introduce a cap on private hire taxis without government legislation.
This strikes a negative tone when the UK in fact wants to welcome innovators, especially in light of Brexit. To do this, government and regulators have to work alongside entrepreneurs to harness new technology. This will require changes to the law and the historic terms of business. However, investors will only succeed in securing this if they develop relationships and trust. With this, they will be able to present a stronger case, supported by third party advocates and evidence of the benefits.