Jesse Norman MP: government to spend £800m to “turn science-fiction into science-fact”

The Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Transport has outlined an ambitious spending plan for the next two years.

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The UK government will commit nearly £800m to research and development funding in the Future of Mobility arm of its Industrial Strategy by 2020, according to Jesse Norman. The Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Transport, attending the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy’s Grand Challenge event at the Resolution Foundation earlier this week, said that the government was aiming to “turn science-fiction into science-fact” by helping the UK’s most innovative technology companies to grow and “bring their products to market more quickly”. 

The intended funding, Norman explained, comprises £400m to be spent on charging infrastructure for electric vehicles, a £100m grant for plugin car projects, £40m for new charging technologies, and £250m dedicated to the development of autonomous vehicles.

Appearing on a panel alongside several transport industry experts, Norman said: “It’s become a bit of a cliché to claim that we are on the cusp of a transport revolution, but I’d like to add a bit more flesh on the bones. It’s actually astonishing how little transport has evolved, when it could be doing so much more. We are still wedded to our internal combustion engines; our railways are remarkably similar to what they were a few decades ago; we are still using many of the same bus routes.” He added: “However, our children might, with the right support, be able to see things that we might have previously only seen in science-fiction. We want to turn science-fiction into science-fact. The UK has a responsibility, then, to support its innovators.”

Modernising the transport sector, Norman added, was not “just a case of changing the way we move goods and services around”, but also tied into the wider goal of improving the UK’s skills pipeline and integrating multiple policy areas to support technological advancement. He said: “It’s not just about developing the technology; it’s about improving the skills and technical know-how that we need to allow for a better future in the UK. And we have to think about how we can export our expertise around the world. We have to re-think everything, from public policy to passenger experience.”

Norman also noted transport’s role to play in a social context and improving access to different job opportunities. “We want to create a paradigm shift in the way that people in rural areas use transport. We are thinking about tackling isolation that occurs in certain parts of society. Technology can level playing fields and this is an example of that; we’ve got to balance it out.” 

George Hazel, programme manager at MaaS Scotland and another panellist at the event in Westminster, credited “personalisation” with catalysing the global clamour to innovate in the transport sector. He said: “The thing to realise is that in the mobility market it [change] has been driven by the consumer. It’s been driven by personalisation, and an increasing complexity of lifestyle, for example travelling abroad for work or commuting somewhere further afield. The concept of everyone having a personal mobility plan was a fantasy in the past, but now it’s a genuine possibility.”

Five AI’s director of public policy Lucy Yu, meanwhile, suggested that the automation of transport was a “necessary step-change” in the transport sector. She invited the audience to think about the “staggering” number of people killed in car accidents each year. She said: “There are 1.2m people [globally] killed on roads annually and many more have serious injuries.” Yu also pointed out the need to use road-space more efficiently and drew on another pertinent figure to illustrate her point. “You’ve got to remember,” she said, “that most cars spend 94 per cent of their time static. They’re parked. Think about all of the land, the prime land in our city centres, that is just taken up by parking. That’s land that could be used more effectively, for public spaces or facilities.”

Yu welcomed Norman’s talk of a “more positive and encouraging regulatory environment” and urged the UK government to “inject a further shot in the arm” by adopting similar models as in the United States and China for large government loans for tech companies with a substantial proof of concept. “Venture capital funding, specifically mega-venture funding, would be a great step forward. I’d love to see the UK government help its businesses get off the ground quicker.”   

Finally, Toby Poston, the director of communications for the British Vehicle Rental and Leasing Association (BVRLA), said that while he was “delighted to see that mobility is being treated as a key pillar of the Industrial Strategy in its own right”, an important factor in how successfully the UK could adopt alternative forms of transport would be updating existing infrastructure. He explained: “Developments in the scale of people making electric vehicle fleets would be great, but you often see them being put off by the cost of how much it would be to erect charging infrastructure. What I’d like to see is policymakers streamline the process and planning of new charge points. And as the boundaries between public and private transport merge, I’d want to see local authorities empowered to act on air quality, congestion and road safety.

Rohan Banerjee is a Special Projects Writer at the New Statesman. He co-hosts the No Country For Brown Men podcast.