The future of vehicles

A collaboration between CSaP, Dstl and the Department of Engineering at Cambridge


The future of vehicles

Reported by Alice Millington, CSaP Policy Intern

In 2021 CSaP worked with the Defence, Science and Technology Laboratory (Dstl) and the Department of Engineering at the University of Cambridge, to deliver two workshops on the future of vehicles. The workshops brought together researchers and policy makers, to discuss where current trajectories of vehicle development might lead in two or three decades from now.

Undoubtedly the future of vehicles will be shaped by a complex landscape of societal pressures, technological advancement, and the increasing environmental imperative of attaining a low-carbon future. Indeed, the two major current trends that our participants identified were the transition towards lower carbon emissions and moves towards greater automation. Perhaps surprisingly, developments to enable automation and carbon neutrality are often two sides of the same coin. For instance, automation allows for significant removal of mass from vehicles – particularly in military settings, which are heavily armoured and thus pose enormous fuel demands. If removing human operators omits the need for armour, we could make massive savings in fuel – assisted by novel composite and lightweight materials.

Similarly, autonomous systems hold promise for both civilian and military applications – but at present operate effectively in only about 80% of road situations. Even after the technology is optimised, social acceptance and consumer confidence remain key to getting these vehicles widely available on our streets. Phillip Guildford, from the University of Cambridge said: “The first workshop underlined that the real challenge lies in cities where over half of the world’s population share road space using different modes of transport in high densities with almost no tolerance for errors – cities will set a high bar for accepting autonomous vehicles.”

It became clear that an entire spectrum of factors will determine the future of vehicles, beyond purely technological advances. Today 95% of all ground-based transportation runs on petrol. Changing this will require the infrastructure of entire countries to be transformed. Yet, whilst electric vehicles are widely touted as a silver bullet to mitigate the carbon crisis, few have been prompted to think seriously about their energy requirements. To electrify all UK vehicles, we will need at least 30% more electricity than our current domestic production – and if carbon is released to meet this extra demand, will the benefits be compromised?

The second workshop looked at these wider dependencies more closely. This took the form of a ‘scenario planning’ workshop, exploring two potential futures: termed ‘One Way’ and ‘Off Road’. The first describes a future in which international commitments to achieve carbon neutrality in vehicles are quickly ratified, with widespread overseas collaboration to distribute renewable energies. ‘Off Road’, meanwhile, describes a future of patchwork systems of regulation and automation worldwide, with each country determining their own path – in part, led by corporate and industrial stakeholders.

Whilst ‘One Way’ was initially viewed as a utopia, participants quickly identified fundamental problems of autocracy, interdependency, and potential inequality. ‘Off Road’, meanwhile, explored our vulnerabilities in a corporation-led future: with service providers gaining unhealthy market power and serving only those who can pay. A closing ‘straw poll’ echoed these uncertain sentiments, with few looking forward to either of these extreme scenarios. There was widespread agreement that policy needed to avoid these two rocks and find safe passage between them, accepting that the world would be a complex choppy mix of the two scenarios.

An enormous amount of learning and collaboration took place across these two sessions. CSaP would like to thank Philip Guildford for his help designing the second workshop. As one of the most longstanding members of our network, Philip reflected on his decade of experience with CSaP:

“I've loved CSaP all the way through. There’s so much value I get from it: it stirs up my thinking, so that I can take ideas and challenges back into the engineering department. CSaP helps so much in making engineering research relevant to policy issues, and making policymakers aware of engineering advances. And of course, now and again, engineering and policy interests spark to create a completely new insights and lines of enquiry with benefits for all.”