So what exactly is a Catapult?

The TSC’s new CEO Paul Campion reflects on the role of a Catapult in a complex and evolving transport industry

If I had a pound for every time someone asked me this… I would have told even more people about my new job. It’s odd when you have got a new job that you believe is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to make a huge difference to the world and no one seems to know what it means. So I feel the need to set out clearly what a Catapult is, and explain why I wanted to cut short my IBM career to join the Transport Systems.

The best place to start the explanation is in the market that the Transport Systems Catapult (TSC) is focused on.

Every person in the UK (actually in the world, but let’s start by thinking about the UK) depends on transport. We go to work, to see our mums, shopping, to the cinema or the gym and we go there by bicycle, car, bus and train. On our holidays we often fly. But even if we never left our houses we would depend on transport for our food, clothes and everything else we need to live.

The energy to heat our homes or cook our food is often generated by fuels delivered by tanker and if we get ill the drugs, bandages, doctors and nurses come to us, or we go to them. In fact, over an eighth of the average household’s spending is on transport and that doesn’t include the hidden freight and transport involved in making and delivering all the goods and services we consume.

The transport network is an amazing thing: it consists of thousands of organisations, public and private, working together in an enormously complicated web of infrastructure and services. It has been doing so in roughly the same way for a long time: unlike industries like retail or publishing, the waves of modern technology (especially IT and telecoms) have not, apparently, had much effect on the roads and the railways.

This is going to change and our research says that it is going to be big business. By 2025 we think that better ways of delivering transport (what we call ‘Intelligent Mobility’) will be worth £900 billion globally. And the good news is that the UK’s transport industry is well positioned to capture some of this huge opportunity: our marine segment is world class.

We are one of the world’s most productive car manufacturers and thanks to the cluster of high technology businesses around the Formula 1 racing teams based here, we have world-leading skills in building innovative and advanced engines and powertrains.

In Aerospace, too, we are a major manufacturer and a leading technology developer, and in rail, bus manufacture and other niche areas the UK has very strong companies. And to support all this, our universities are world-famous for research in transport.

So why are we not seeing new and better ways of travelling being introduced every day?

The reason is the size and complexity of the transport network: thousands of ‘moving parts’ work together to deliver transport outcomes. If the transport network were a single, mechanical machine with those thousands of moving parts we could imagine that friction would make it hard to turn.

The equivalent of this ‘friction’ in the transport market is what economists call ‘market failures’. For good and bad reasons the various organisations in the transport network do not cooperate together as they could. Costs and benefits are not aligned, information does not flow and there are insufficient incentives for leaders in the industry to take up innovations from universities and from other industries.

To put it another way, without help the market will not deliver the sort of innovations that travellers and businesses want. The spending on transport infrastructure will not deliver the optimum outcomes and the need to decarbonise transport will not be addressed quickly enough.

It is for this reason that the government decided to invest taxpayer’s money in an organisation to identify and address those market failures: the Transport Systems Catapult. We are here to help UK industry grow, to increase the number of high quality jobs in the transport industry in the UK and to deliver better transport outcomes for the country.

We are going to do this by concentrating on five initiatives:

  1. Working with universities to help them to take their innovations to market and helping industry to understand and exploit those innovations (the ‘Academic Partnership Programme’).
  2. By helping entrepreneurs to set up companies in the Intelligent Mobility market and to help small companies to get bigger (the ‘Small and Medium Enterprise programme’).
  3. Building on our world-leading work in ‘Connected and Autonomous Vehicles’ (such as the LUTZ Pathfinder pod, the first autonomous vehicle trial in public space in the UK) to ensure the UK can exploit these new technologies. As the market put increasing investment into the vehicles themselves we will focus more on how such vehicles will be used, and how they will contribute to improved transport outcomes in the future.
  4. Helping companies to deliver new models of transport discovery, use, payment and delivery. ‘Mobility as a Service’ companies plan to deliver seamless journeys with the hassle of timetables, tickets and parking hidden from the traveller. And as these and other organisations capture more information about travellers, journeys and systems the transport networks will become better able to respond to the demands of travellers.
  5. Both of these last two initiatives fundamentally depend on data. Several large companies have seen this opportunity and are investing huge amounts of money to try to monopolise travellers’ access to transport solutions. If they succeed then the market opportunities for companies wanting to innovate will be throttled. The TSC wants to see an open data platform for transport that will create new market opportunities.

But above and beyond all this, what is the Catapult actually going to do? The central role that the TSC can perform is to be a neutral, independent integrator that brings together the various players in the industry to develop solutions that, working separately, would otherwise not happen, or happen more slowly.

Recently the TSC did just this with regional airports in the UK. The ‘Departure Planning Information’ system delivers real-time information to the control towers of regional airports enabling them to move aircraft through the airport much more efficiently. This sounds a really simple thing to do, but it was previously difficult to do because the economic incentives of the airlines (who mainly benefit) and the airports (who mainly bear the costs of the new system) were not aligned.

The TSC was able to bring the various parties together and enable them to deliver a system that is saving millions of pounds by reducing delays and the wasted fuel burnt stacking and waiting because of them.

There are dozens, perhaps hundreds, of other improvements that can be made to the transport network by helping to deliver innovations currently blocked by market failures. If you’ve ever been frustrated by some travel problem and thought ‘there must be a better way to do this’ you were probably right: the good news is that the Transport Systems Catapult is now here to do something about it!

Find out more about Paul Campion here.

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