‘Downton Abbey’ is the future of mobility

In our latest blog, CEO Paul Campion sees the future of mobility and transport laid out in a costume drama set in 1912. In a world of connected and autonomous cars, high-speed trains and mass air transit, what can we learn from the Lord Grantham and his household?    

I have no idea what the overlap is between fans of Sunday evening television costume dramas and fans of transport innovation, but I have made a connection which I think is worth considering if you work in the transport industry. Perhaps everyone reading this thinks this is very old news, but just in case anyone is not sure what I am on about let me explain the premise of Downton Abbey.

The show is set in the early years of the twentieth century, the fictional Robert, Earl of Grantham is the hereditary owner of the titular stately home and estates. As in many a drama, his poor family suffer more than their fair share of illnesses, coincidences and assorted vicissitudes.

The important feature of the situation from our transport industry perspective, is that he employs a large number of servants who look after the house and tend to his family’s every need. As the year progresses they move from country estate to London house and back. Lord Grantham has a discussion with his butler along the lines of; ‘I think we’ll go to London next week, Carson’ and the next thing we know boxes and packages are being unpacked in Belgrave Square.

Now, whatever you think about this, or any other, television drama, there are a few real historical observations that we can learn from.

Firstly, the infrastructure and vehicles used by the likes of the Earl of Grantham and his household were much the same as today: trains, buses, taxis, private hire vehicles, private cars and a variety of good vehicles operated in very similar ways. There have been some technical changes (steam has been replaced as a power source on the railways) – but the similarities are more numerous than the differences.

The second point is that the biggest change we have seen since is the democratisation of transport. A hundred years ago, the average person (by which I the sort of person who does not have television dramas written about them) did not tend to move far from home. Work, shopping, schooling and fun happened within walking distance or bus ride away. Holidays were few and might involve a train ride. True, lots of people commuted by rail to London but, proportionally, many fewer than today. The underlying reason for this was economics: people had much less money than today.

The standard of living of the people of the United Kingdom has dramatically improved over the last one hundred years (as it has for the vast majority of humankind, albeit starting from different bases and increasing at different rates.) Some of the more obvious ways in which peoples’ lives are different are well recognised: nowadays people expect to have warm, dry places to live with indoor sanitation and hot water, enough food to eat and easy access to medical care…all things which the average person in the early twentieth century could not rely on.

With these things in mind, it is easy to overlook the ways in which people’s access to transport has also changed. A century on from the era of Downton Abbey, people have been able to move about much more. The average adult owns, or has access to, a car. There are as many train journeys made today as there were when the rail network was twice the size and before motorways were built. Taxi and minicab journeys are an everyday routine, not a once-a-year luxury.

It is now unexceptional to travel long distances to work, shop, or to go to school and holidays are routinely in different countries and continents thanks to mass market air travel. Today you and I travel more, and more comfortably, than the richest and most privileged Edwardians did.

But Lord Grantham still had one advantage over you and I: he had Carson, his butler. We may be able to fly to New York in a tenth of the time, and a twentieth the cost of Lord Grantham but we have to arrange our own journeys. Part of the efficiency gains that have delivered such cheap transport to us have been driven by putting the work of arranging the journey onto the traveller.

Lord Grantham never had to research the journey, understand the travel options, look up timetables, book and pay for tickets, drive his own car, find parking, pack his bags, carry his bags, or find his own way through a station, terminal or a city.

But the future can be different.

Technologies such as Artificial Intelligence promise to turn us all into Lord Grantham, with our own personalised travel arrangements.

Our future travel needs can be identified from a diary held on a smartphone and systems can predict our needs in advance (‘You have a meeting booked in Edinburgh next Wednesday, but you are in Birmingham on Tuesday. Would you prefer to fly, drive or take the train? Please note that planned roadworks mean that the car option may take 45 minutes longer than usual’).

Our preferences can be automatically learned from our travel histories and options can be offered (‘You usually hire a bicycle to go from the station to work, but the weather forecast is for rain so confirm if you want a taxi to be booked for tomorrow’s trip’).

The difference between, for instance, business and leisure travel can be taken into account (‘The trip to Florida in July looks like a family trip, rather than business. Do you want to pay for the flights using frequent flyer miles rather than the usual credit card?’).

Finally, competition between services could be based on the convenience of the entire journey, rather than the facilities on an individual leg. For instance, the thing I hate about air travel is having to lug my bags it in and out of my car, onto the car-park shuttle bus, through an airport and past a security check, onto a taxi at the other end and into the hotel.

Personally, I don’t think it is worth paying an upgrade for a slightly better meal and a little bit more leg-room on the flight, but I would gladly pay more for my luggage to be collected at home and delivered to my destination without my having to think about it. While they are about it, they could also be booking my parking space and giving me a map of the airport before I get there etc.

The future of transport is robot butlers. The period between the Dowton Abbey era and now has given us all more transport freedom; now let technology give us the transport convenience experienced by the Earl of Grantham!



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