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How connectivity can help unlock the path to a climate-neutral Britain

(Image credit: Image Credit: Moon Light PhotoStudio / Shutterstock)

As Covid-19 saw a number of restrictions being put in place across cities and towns across the globe, it has become apparent that when we are able to return to something approximating normal life, many of our day-to-day activities will remain permanently altered.

The global scale of the pandemic, while devastating, has shown the dramatic effect a significant reduction in worldwide carbon emissions has on our environment. Recent reports have suggested that we’re likely to use around 6 per cent less energy this year, the equivalent of the entire energy demand of India.

These positive environmental benefits which we have seen most clearly around air quality, are something we should strive to sustain as lockdown lifts. They show the scale of the effect that changing transport habits can have on reducing carbon emissions. A change of long-standing importance when viewed in conjunction with the government’s net-zero carbon emissions target for 2050.

With the latest Budget offering new incentives to increase electric vehicle ownership, it’s clear that e-mobility is one avenue the UK is exploring in a bid to make travel more sustainable in order to help meet the UK’s net-zero target. This is an important step for the UK, but it is not the only way to reduce transport emissions, as there are also major gains to be had from Connected and Automated Mobility (CAM) technologies too.

Achieving net-zero will take radical technological and behavioural change. CAM will enable new ways of transporting goods and traveling and will change the way vehicles are driven. For example, research has already shown that connectivity can boost a vehicle’s energy efficiency anywhere between 5 per cent to 20 per cent. Early demonstrations of this come from the world of freight and logistics. Vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) connectivity, combined with a relatively low level of automation can enable vehicle platooning, whereby multiple lorries can follow a lead truck at small enough distances to benefit from reduced aerodynamic drag and improved energy efficiency at motorway speeds. In another example, freight traveling into the port of Rotterdam showed dramatic reductions in fuel consumption when equipped with the “Green Light Optimisation Speed Advisory” technology that reduces the need to accelerate and decelerate repeatedly when passing through junctions with traffic lights.

Saving money

Aside from the environmental benefits, it’s estimated that vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure connectivity could help save £400m a year as vehicles can react to traffic information in their area, resulting in a smoother flow of traffic, more reliable journeys and increased productivity. Smoothing is exemplified on motorways when vehicles are able to negotiate changing road speeds and obstacles without suffering from the shock wave effect that can happen if a car ahead suddenly slows. This reduces brake and tire wear, as well as reducing fuel or energy use as drivers will have less need to repeatedly accelerate in response to changes in traffic speed. These benefits are applicable for both electric and ICE powered vehicles. 

Another way connectivity can make a difference is through the establishment of high-level traffic information sharing. While one of the biggest advances in recent years for drivers has been the widespread adoption of live traffic information in route planning and sat-nav apps, a lot of this information is held by individual companies, like Google, and the information is reactive. At its most basic, you only know about traffic once vehicles report being stuck in a jam. Furthermore, there is only limited statistical insight at the disposal of the more proactive transport management systems.

To take a step forward, this information can be collected more efficiently and made available to multiple partners and service providers. It can be used more effectively to understand traffic patterns so that congestion can be reduced due to better-informed decisions and actions by drivers and the operators of transport and of roads.

For this to become a reality, robust connectivity will need to be baked into vehicles, roadside infrastructure, and potentially even roads themselves, enhancing data sharing between vehicles, drivers, and cities. The development and deployment of widespread, improved telecommunications (including 5G) will enable more immediate and effective safety systems thanks to low latency and high data capacity. This ingrained connectivity will also be fundamental to the effective, safe deployment of self-driving vehicles in the future. Network operators and the government’s Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) are already playing a vital role in providing this.

Unlocking deliverables

Connectivity unlocks many of the core deliverables Zenzic detailed in the UK Connected and Automated Mobility Roadmap to 2030. The roadmap lays out what needs to happen in order for the UK to begin benefitting from self-driving vehicles as soon as is safely possible. Connectivity is particularly important when considering desirable shared mobility services and integration into towns and cities to enhance efficiency and productivity.

It is important to note that although the milestones in the roadmap are important to achieving a net-zero future, we need to review how they will work in a post-Covid-19 society. The Covid-19 pandemic is necessarily forcing us to change how we live. Increasing shared mobility options, and driving the adoption of MaaS (mobility as a service) will necessarily need to better cater for social distancing and reducing R. While these are new challenges, connectivity and self-driving capabilities can make shared transport more useful to more people, decreasing the necessity for privately owned vehicles driving on UK roads and thereby helping to reduce emissions and congestion.

To be able to benefit from CAM by 2030, we need to ensure the underlying technology and regulation are being developed today. Luckily, the UK is in a prime position to lead the way to safely test and regulate connectivity with this already taking place across our CAM Testbed UK facilities. For example, Midlands Future Mobility is developing a route of 5G enabled public roads to help push these developments. The teams at Millbrook Culham have also been testing the capabilities of 5G connectivity, working with a number of other partners to develop a ‘smart ambulance’ that simulated 5G connectivity, transforming the vehicle into a unique remote consultation room. Nationally we also have exceptional academic institutions and testing facilities that have been blazing a trail for cybersecurity since the birth of the internet. With the advent of self-driving vehicles, the complexity of cyber-defences will increase as thousands of vehicles, pieces of road-side infrastructure and connecting systems need to share data securely. This is an opportunity for the UK to build on the decades of experience we already have and once again set the standards for the rest of the world to follow.

Prime position

While connected and automated mobility technologies may not be the first thing people think of when it comes to sustainable transport, it is clear that they will play a critical part on the journey to achieve net-zero carbon targets by 2050. The beginnings of this evolution are starting to appear in some news cars on sale today; both Volkswagen and Ford have recently released models that feature the latest V2V connectivity.

Over the coming years, drivers will be able to access increasingly immediate traffic information, and as automated systems become increasingly connected, the way we drive will begin to change for the better. Drivers in the UK may see these changes sooner than those in other countries as our testbeds are at the cutting edge of developments in this area, and in fact reports suggest that all cars produced in the UK will be connected by 2026 (although I do ask myself what degree of connectivity this implies). With continued investment, the UK will be in a prime position to take advantage of the environmental benefits of connectivity, helping to create a more sustainable transport network in the next few years.

Daniel Ruiz, CEO, Zenzic