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Midlands Future Mobility opinion: Empty shelves underline need for logistics R&D

Author Dr Andrew Traill is an independent advisor with more than 30 years’ experience in freight and logistics innovation. Between April 2015 and December 2019, he was principal technologist at the Connected Places Catapult.

Early Covid-19 scenes in the media showed row upon row of empty supermarket shelves and yet there were supplies, seemingly abundant, held in warehouses. This reveals the very great need for even more agile and adaptive logistics.

Despite some technological improvements in logistics in recent years, investment in innovation has been lacking relative to other sectors. Only about 4% of all private equity investment goes directly into transport services as a whole, with the lion’s share going to the automotive and public transport sectors.

Yet, according to the National Infrastructure Commission, heavy goods vehicles (HGVs) account for 12% of road use, 25% of motorway usage and 19% of urban and rural road use(1).

This lack of investment into innovation in the freight logistics sector urgently needs to change.

A new testbed in the West Midlands aims to provide a major stimulus to such innovation in freight logistics; this article explains the why, what, where and how.

The world is in a highly volatile, changeable state; this is, arguably, our new normal. Businesses need to have greater control, greater agility and versatility to adapt readily to rapidly changing business conditions and supply chain disruptions.

Compound the macro-economic impacts on business with the day-to-day problems, such as road closures, flooding, road works and network upgrades, all causing congestion that costs the freight sector £3.7 billion annually(2), and the logistics companies will struggle to provide the levels of service required  of them and be under extreme economic pressure from rising operating costs.

Providing real-time information to co-ordinate road logistics operations with current road conditions, could be a key part of the solution.

Linking information in real time about traffic levels and conditions, drivers’ hours and pick-up or delivery times would help optimise the utilisation and efficiency of the operations, remove or avoid congestion and provide the service quality and reliability that customers require; it could enable supply chains to optimise their logistics and meet consumer expectations and extraordinary demand events.

This would require extreme levels of collaboration and data-sharing between and among infra-structure managers, local authorities and agencies, vehicle manufacturers, operators and drivers, supply chain, store, warehouse and transport management systems, customers and, for the last mile parcel and food deliveries, end consumers. You also need system developers and communication network operators involved. Easier said than done and not cheap.

For a sector which traditionally experiences small profit margins, it isn’t surprising, therefore, that many in the industry have been reluctant to invest time and resource in such connected mobility research and development (R&D).

How do you get all the parties needed together? How and where could you develop, test and refine the technology under real-world conditions and not just in simulation?

Fortunately, such places exist, supported through a Government- and industry-funded programme, in recognition of the need to de-risk and encourage developments in the innovations required to achieve such outcomes.

Based in the West Midlands, connecting Coventry, Birmingham and Solihull, ‘Midlands Future Mobility’ (MFM) is part of the UK’s Connected and Automated Mobility (CAM) testbed network.

It is the largest of the UK’s real-world testbeds, with more than 300km (185 miles) of roads, and provides a highly instrumented and connected environment, enabling collection of data while driving on different road types, negotiating complex junctions and trialling last-mile solutions.

Freight and logistics companies can trial vehicles, systems and infrastructure, capturing key data through smart monitoring systems, using the latest wireless connectivity.

Significant sections of the environment can also be simulated in fully immersive digital facilities for controlled testing, and the entire road network has been scanned for use in users’ own simulators.

MFM is backed by the local transport authorities – crucial in supporting new partnerships and business models in and around future mobility.

The connectivity between the infrastructure and the vehicles is but one part of the total connected mobility challenge; but it is likely to be the part most outside the reach of businesses’ influence.

For that reason, this is a golden opportunity for the freight logistics and supply chain owners they serve to come together, collaborate and begin to exploit the opportunities that connected mobility can offer.

In this ever-changing, unpredictable world, it has to be the right thing to do in order to survive and prosper.

1 Better delivery: The challenge for freight. Freight study final report. National Infrastructure Commission, April 2019

2 WSP; Future of Freight, Managing Congestion; National Infrastructure Committee, December 2018

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Additional thoughts from Daniel Ruiz, CEO of Zenzic, which works with Midlands Future Mobility:

The Covid-19 crisis has put in sharp focus the needs for innovation in logistics. The challenges caused by the pandemic have reinforced the case for investing in the next generation of technologies to improve efficiency and agility across freight and logistics in the UK. 

The good news is that there is a growing number of advocates for developing better connectivity as well as automation for the freight industry. The UK is able to draw on decades of experience in the development of cutting edge technologies (from high definition mapping to cyber security) to be a world-leader in this space. This is apparent in the high quality research and development currently underway across the country.

The UK has taken a lead on the world stage in terms of testing and development of Connected and Automated Mobility or “CAM”.  For example, Midlands Future Mobility (MFM) is a fantastic testing facility, with over 185 miles of roads already being outfitted with 5G-ready equipment which can support high-speed and high-density information gathering and distribution. MFM is part of CAM Testbed UK, a coalition of testing facilities working together to ensure the UK is able to benefit from connected and automated mobility as soon as is safely possible. Another CAM Testbed UK member, ConVEx, is creating a data-sharing platform which will facilitate open data exchanges, to maximise the usefulness of each data set, while still maintaining or increasing the value of the data to the organisation that owns it. 

Our UK-based testing facilities show the diversity of technologies already being created which will soon have an impact on how both people and goods move across the UK. We are ready to build on this momentum to channel investment and commitment into the large-scale changes connected and automated mobility solutions can make to logistics in the UK and worldwide.



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