Our London based CAV testbed is helping bring about the transport revolution – here’s how


In 2013, we realised the transport sector was facing a revolution.

Mobility was taking on a new meaning, with technology enabling fresh ways of delivering goods and moving people around. With such drastic changes looming, it was clear to us that we had both an opportunity and a challenge available – and it seemed perfect for us to tackle.

As a global centre for innovation, the Transport Research Laboratory (TRL) has been at the centre of changes in the UK transport industry for years - going back to the 1930s.

This puts us in a great position to steer the transport industry through this period of intense transformation. But to be able to help the industry change, we had to do quite a bit of changing ourselves first.

In this blog post, I’ll explain what we’ve been up to and how this period of change has led us to one of our biggest and most important initiatives to date: Smart Mobility Living Lab (SMLL).


A new project with an established partner

The biggest disruptors in the current mobility sector are Automation, Connectivity, Electrification and Sharing (ACES). TRL works across all these domains, but when it comes to technology TRL is particularly renown for its work on connected and automated vehicles.

To date, we’ve been involved in a total of sixteen CAV projects, including:

Some great learnings came from these projects but there’s always more to be done before real change is enacted. In February 2016, we launched our latest and biggest initiative, SMLL, in Greenwich in partnership with DG Cities. Later, when the UK government called for evidence about the need for CAV testing facilities, our response impacted the Government’s decision and led to the announcement of £100m being made available to build a UK CAV Testbed. TRL prepared a winning bid centred on the SMLL proposition, together with strategic partner DG Cities, as well as Cisco, Transport for London, Cubic, London Legacy Development Corporation and Loughborough University. At this time, we were also able to extend the geographical base of SMLL beyond Greenwich, to the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in Stratford.

With all of these different pieces coming together, SMLL will soon become a real-world connected environment for testing and developing future transport solutions, positioning the UK and London as global leaders in the field.


A project for everyone

SMLL is based on a number of instrumented, open and closed routes around London, located in the Royal Borough of Greenwich and the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in Stratford, and will facilitate testing of emerging CAV technologies and infrastructure solutions.

At its core, SMLL is a partnership between the industry and academia, between the city and its people. However, its ambition is far broader. SMLL aims to bring everyone together in a mutually beneficial ecosystem – the public, academia, big industry players, start-ups and everyone in between.

This ecosystem will produce a wealth of data that will be available to partners and customers involved in the testbed to be used for a variety of means. For example, it could be used in collaborative projects, such as those funded by Innovate UK. Or it could be used on a private commercial basis or in research projects, such as those funded by the UK research councils. In addition to these uses, we have also launched a Shared Research Programme - a membership-driven initiative, which allows members to collaborate on research, make use of the data collected by SMLL, and together seek answers to some of the fundamental questions facing the new mobility industry. 

The insights SMLL produces will be critical in helping the UK to succeed in the global race to become a leader in CAV technologies and present a coordinated offering to the world. As we progress with SMLL, we look to match the government’s ambition and ensure the UK can offer a coherent proposition in the future mobility arena.


Why is this testbed important?

There’s a huge amount of uncertainty as to what the future looks like. Estimates around driverless cars vary: some say they are a year away from hitting our streets, but conservative estimates suggest it could be forty years or more.

This uncertainty makes it very difficult for companies or local authorities to plan and invest, since there’s little evidence to build a business case on and the solutions that have arrived to date (such as Uber) have created high levels of disruption.

SMLL can fill this gap. By bringing innovators from different domains together, it will allow people to share knowledge and build better models to use for future planning in a safe environment. By allowing the city to understand the impact, develop new policies and finetune investment decisions, we’ll be in a much better position to tackle the current uncertainty.

We’re moving away from a vehicle centric model of the world. In the past the car was king, but now we’re shifting away from personal ownership of cars and into public and private fleets as forms of transport. Vehicles will now be just one part of a far more complex system that includes both infrastructure and people.

SMLL is key to this process as it looks beyond the normal scope of testing. Instead of focusing simply on the vehicles and the technology on the vehicle, we’ll be exploring the whole service model. That means the CAVs, the roads they drive on, the infrastructure supporting the CAV technology and the way it is delivered – everything.

In effect we want to apply systems thinking, an approach which is more typical in the defence and aerospace industries, to transport.


Putting people at the heart of the testbed

There’s also a human aspect to the project that I find really exciting.

Changing the way we move people and goods around a city has the potential to make transport safer, cleaner, more affordable, more liveable and more efficient – and while new technology is powering this, to realise the benefits fully, we have to place humans at the centre of what we do.

I have been developing autonomous systems for over 20 years, and during this time, I have found that it is the interaction of technology and humans that is the hardest but most fascinating aspect of the work.

If we get it right, we will have a real opportunity to change the way the world thinks about transport and mobility.

People’s experience of their environment – the streets, the noise, the pollution – is all set to change as we start to do things in a better, more efficient way.


Transformation through testing

What we’re trying to do is hugely complex. We’re attempting to change how a city operates.

But this is also what makes it such important and rewarding work.

As we move forwards, we have a massive opportunity to build the kind of world that works for everyone – starting with the people of London.