Not long ago, the idea of having a national transport strategy about data would have seemed outlandish.
From around five years ago, we’ve had predictions of a lifestyle revolution based on the value of data. Now, that revolution has gone mainstream, and with it, the world of planes, trains and automobiles.
Running to keep up, we have a new UK government policy paper which sets out some of the rewards and challenges of harnessing the power of data generated by transport systems. It’s a fascinating vision of future transport patterns, and a clear sign that every sector must now be viewed through the lens of data monetisation.
The systems, and the data, will drive each other. In the same way that data has launched an information and entertainment revolution, with free content paid for through advertising by means of data collection, we can surely expect something equally extraordinary to develop in the physical world.
When it comes to the automotive sector, the paper sets out the early stages of this vision: “[p]reviously, the focus had been on using vehicle data to reduce operating costs and enhance driver safety. Increasingly it is being used to support a switch to more sustainable travel choices”.
And this is just the beginning. Let’s take, for example, the question of electric vehicle (EV) chargepoints mentioned in the strategy. These points for recharging EVs both respond to, and influence, human behaviour. People need chargepoints in order to use EVs, and they want confidence that they will get to their current destinations of choice. But the chargepoints are also shaping travel patterns by becoming attractive destinations in their own right – and there is a race on to develop chargepoints alongside recreational venues like restaurants, hotels and leisure facilities, and take their place as part of a consumer offering.
Until now it has been notoriously difficult for drivers of EVs to track down places to recharge, partly because data owners in the private sector have been reluctant to pool data.
The government vision is to make this information openly available, and the benefits seem almost infinite. Drivers will be able to locate chargepoints more easily and so will be keener to switch to an EV sooner, app developers will have opportunities to present aggregated location and capacity information to users. At the same time, data collected from drivers about their use of chargepoints can optimise efficient power generation, help infrastructure planners, assist traffic management, provide information to the automotive sector about fuel efficiency and driving performance, and feed information to the leisure industry and to advertisers about driver habits and behaviour.
…into the big blue yonder
Data exchange could help underpin Mobility as a Service (MaaS), the seamless provision of a chain of travel solutions available to travellers at a swipe. Not to mention hastening an automated vehicle revolution, which some see as heralding a new era of shared vehicle networks, with “public” driverless cars available on call to pick us up and drop us off wherever we want to go.
There are possibilities for collaboration with existing digital players, for example using a chargepoint as a convenient stop for a package delivery, or bags from the online grocery shop.
Lessons from AdTech?
Talking of digital players, can AdTech, the first great data driven model, say anything about what’s in store? AdTech emerged at a time before we realised that we, the users, were a product. The emergence of the tech behemoths has led to increasing concern and so the unregulated personal data-driven system is gradually being brought back into balance.
So, should we expect a replay: are we in a transport data wild west, where disregard for privacy, competition and IP issues will take us somewhere we don’t want to go?
In Europe we see that some governments are determined to shape these new ecosystems via heavy legislative control. The EU Data Governance Act, plus the upcoming Data Act and AI Act all attempt to put firm limits around the collection, sharing and use of “industrial” data, such as that generated through transport networks. These will sit alongside existing – and extensive - controls on the use of personal information.
The UK government is taking a more agile, more openly innovation friendly, approach, while trusting that the current underpinning from existing legal principles will keep unwelcome developments in check. Hence the thrust of the new strategy is that the government will try to promote data sharing through data standardisation, sharing platforms and catalogues, but it won’t interfere much with IP rights, or impose mandates about how industrial data should be used. EV charging is a case in point: the government has indicated that it will legislate to open up some public chargepoint data, while exempting data generated in the purely private sphere, such as from home or manufacturer-specific charging.
Reasons for optimism
But perhaps we shouldn’t worry too much about the lighter touch. Unlike AdTech, this is a system with heavy public sector involvement because it is underpinned by real world infrastructure. We should expect this to put extra brakes – such planning constraints - on what’s happening. In addition, there are three heavily invested players sitting at the transport data table – government, individuals, and the private sector. Each brings access to valuable commodities, and each has different needs. Balance may be more achievable on a three-legged stool. But there’s no doubt that government will have a tricky task setting incentives and rules in such a way as to optimise future possibilities for all.
New ways to pay
There’s another divergence from AdTech: being a geographically contained system, transport is a sector with easier tax levers to pull. Currently, tax on private cars contributes to the cost of roads, and we recognise that users pay in part for running public infrastructure. Road tax subsidies to incentivise EV use have opened questions about whether this model is still fit for purpose. We know (not least from the emergence of this policy paper) that travel-generated data is valuable and monetizable – could such data be part of the “payment” expected from the private user to contribute to travel infrastructure? So, say, a lower road tax for drivers prepared to share more of their driver data?
And if business doesn’t share the government’s “open data” vision, will it try to incentivise data sharing through the tax system? Car users create a product of value by generating travel data, and the government sees that the greatest value to society can be derived through aggregation and exploitation of this data within the private sector, saying that the government prefers to monitor the market rather than build its own data platform for chargepoint data. So perhaps businesses which derive value from user-generated data might pay taxes for the public good, with incentives to contribute to public data trusts in return for data tax breaks?
The possibilities are endless. The new Transport Data Strategy recognises that we are standing at the threshold of something new and big in all sectors of the transport system.
When it comes to future travel, we are setting off on an exciting new journey.