Tech companies needed to fully develop European transport networks, experts say

Günther Weber, Chairman of the Network of National ITS (Intelligent Transport Systems) Associations. 

Europe continues the journey towards a more integrated, efficient, and “intelligent” transport framework, but two experts have pointed to a gap in development and said that tech companies must step in to fill it.  

New IT solutions are required to truly achieve world-class transport management systems, they said, meaning more work needs to be done on data processing, traffic and mobility pattern analysis and new so that the capabilities of transport networks are maximised while the carbon footprint is minimized.

“We need tech companies,” said Günther Weber, Chairman of the Network of National ITS (Intelligent Transport Systems) Associations. In an interview with GovTech Europe, he described tech companies as “essential”, and called for increased dialogue, so the right solutions could be found.

ITS – intelligent transportation systems – is an effort to digitalize the management of various modes of transport so that they are as safe, efficient and coordinated as possible.

European nations are at the forefront of this effort. The continent boasts a vast collection of transport networks in need of oversight. Its systems are extensive as motorways, as vital as underground metros, and as green as bike routes. 

Joost Vantomme, a close colleague of Weber’s and CEO of ERTICO, a public-private partnership representing over a hundred entities associated with ITS 

The continent’s governments, regional and city councils are continuously looking for ways to improve these systems’ capacity, reduce their carbon footprint, and ensure their citizens know how best to make use of them.

For this, those in charge continue to turn to tech, seeing it as the bridge linking present networks to future potential. 

On a regional level, these processes are driven and supported by national ITS associations. The Network of ITS Associations was formed to consolidate these national ITS interests, and ensure all relevant knowledge is available to all stakeholders such as public bodies or industry who will benefit, both at the national and European level.

Weber, as Chair, warned that while many tech companies were starting to give more attention to ITS, big steps remained.

“Usually, tech companies are focused much more on the services side, but intelligent transport is based a lot on physical infrastructure – e.g. signs, signals sensors,” he explained.

“One of the issues which we should be talking about – is common databases on which to build services. We need to feed these databases, and a lot of that information comes from physical infrastructure.”

He called on some of the world’s biggest tech firms to “lead with examples” of solutions that could help the ITS effort. “We would love to hear from Google, or Microsoft,” he suggested.

“Some of these organisations are starting to discuss [more involvement in ITS]. This makes it easier because we do have some tech companies in our memberships. But in the end, we need to find a balance of how we get a dialogue and better understanding.”

“We need them because they have to provide the platforms. Meanwhile, we and our members, coming more from the ‘traffic’ side, have to provide the data and content. We have to find a new way of working,” he added.

Can Europe Tackle ITS as a unit?

When it comes to intelligent transport, a common policy means common data, according to Joost Vantomme, a close colleague of Weber’s and CEO of ERTICO, a public-private partnership representing over a hundred entities associated with ITS. Service providers, suppliers, OEMs, connectivity industry providers, transport experts, public authorities, researchers and users– all have a place within the organisation.

Vantomme echoed Weber’s sentiments about tech gaps in the intelligence transport field, but added that cross-border collaboration was where progress was stalling.

“What we don’t have is a common economy of datasets between the member states,” he said. “For example, the Irish National Roads Authority has different datasets from the Netherlands.”

“We also see it in cities. There are variations all over the place, all these different regulations are not harmonised. There is not yet a true European synchronisation and harmonisation mechanism that prevents us to have a true single European market.”

He praised the notion of “common data,” and expressed hope that countries would share with, and learn more from each other about transport trends than they do currently. “If we were to have a federalisation of the access points between the datasets,” he said. “Then at least we would know what we are talking about. “The NAPCORE project [an organisation that co-ordinates and harmonises over 30 mobility data platforms across Europe], funded by Europe, is a promising good step forward.

Weber, meanwhile, said that “a lot of things were needed,” in this area. He called for Europe-wide databases similar to the ones many public bodies currently used to monitor road traffic, and that this “basic infrastructure” should be “everywhere, using the same interfaces.”

He did, however, advise that work on this initiative was already underway.

“We will basically have two databases,” he described. “One for publicly generated information like timetables etc, and the other for privately generated information, for example, car data. The challenge will be how to make these data available to a multitude of services while securing the rights and business models of the various sources”

“Both of those are necessary for the management of traffic in the future, and for the optimisation of efficiency, so we need to find databases which are available for broader use.”

Both Weber and Vantomme also noted that developing a collaborative ITS framework for Europe was also complicated by different urban structures across the continent.

Ireland and the UK, for example, have historically tended towards a low-rise, low-density urban model, even close to city centres. In places like London and Dublin, the concentrated nature of central business districts (CBDs) rapidly falls away to endless housing estates, stretching for tens of kilometres, increasing the desire for private vehicles and lessening enthusiasm for public transport.

Other European countries like Germany are the opposite. Low-density housing is confined to outer suburbs, while inner suburbs feature taller apartment blocks, creating a more compact living environment and resulting in different transport strategies.

As a result of differences like this, tech solutions were often based more on local issues, because they wouldn’t translate well internationally. Weber used the example of charging electric vehicles.

“In the UK, which is spread out, it’s relatively easy to introduce a charger for each house, because every home is connected separately to the electricity grid,” he explained.

“Germany, with a different housing structure, has lots of flats. People have their own property but in a bigger system. It’s much more difficult to introduce an individual charger for electric cars because of this.”

Intelligent transport – green transport

Weber and Vantomme spoke against the backdrop of a continent set on a full, green transition within two decades.

By 2050, the EU plans to be climate neutral, the UK shares similar goals, and this ambition for a more sustainable society will undoubtedly have repercussions on developing transport networks.

One obvious example was the rollout of electric vehicles, which Vantomme said would create “enormous challenges” on electricity networks across the continent.

“I would say that most of the European projects that we pursue, have to have an element of sustainability,” he said. “It’s really part of our DNA at this point.”

Weber added that while the pandemic has altered immediate goals in the short term, the “green revolution” was a process that has already begun and will continue to push ahead.

Tech solutions matter in this area just as much as anywhere else, he suggested, because changing ways of getting around require new methods of monitoring what services are needed and where.

It could be something as simple as filling up a car, Weber said, as even this everyday occurrence would look drastically different once electric vehicles overtook their petrol predecessors.

“In the past, filling up did not need a manged infrastructure, just a single petrol station, pumps, oil storage locations,” he said. “Now, you have a fluctuating electric grid, which you have to manage in conjunction with the demand of mobility. It’s one of the biggest obstacles, and a big IT challenge too, I would say.”

The Future

Intelligent transport means innovative tech: that’s what both Weber and Vantomme have proposed, and something to watch over the next few years.

Europe has historically been a keen follower of what works best for its transport networks. Its motorways are numerous, it’s rapid transit systems often a crown jewel of public infrastructure.

But there remains work to be done, according to the experts. Watch this space to see how this pans out.

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