A quick and easy way to have better transport in Malta

There’s been lots of news about automated vehicles with stunning results coming out of Silicon Valley. This sort of innovation is not just about technology, but the ecosystem that allows technology to thrive. Malta doesn’t have a proper futuristic transport strategy to take advantage of this. Why not?

I

The most media savvy company working on autonomous cars is Google. By this, I mean they are the ones who keep themselves in the news. They know that brand recognition is a large part of customer behaviour after all. Those in the know will also mention Tesla, Uber and Apple as examples of tech companies working hard to make Ford and Toyota history.

You can develop self-driving technology anywhere. From LIDAR, to sensors, to image recognition, you can build the tech anywhere. The only reason it started in Silicon Valley is that you have a collection of technical people who are just there. You don’t find that concentration of tech brains, and the funding they need, anywhere else in the world.

Autonomous cars sensing their environment

I’ve written before about the lack of a proper industrial strategy in Malta. If we had that, we would be closer to being able to experiment with futuristic transport systems too. I don’t understand why this is the case. The Prime Minister claims his new blockchain and bitcoin laws should keep Malta at the forefront of technology. As I wrote in my articles about those topics, his intent seems to be anything but putting Malta first.

What if we invested in our future by focusing on the end products instead?

II

You can find the societal developments required for a car to drive itself anywhere in the world. Google needs to have its cars on real-world roads so the cars can learn about the kind of conditions which exist on roads.

In total, Google’s cars have already driven 5 000 000 miles (about 8 000 000 km) on American roads1. That’s way more experience than you or I can ever have. Every car learns from its own experience and uploads its results to a central server. Every other car then learns from this experience too. This means all cars learn from each other’s mistakes. Every single one.

It’s why these cars are going to be better drivers than you or I ever will be. California allowed these companies to experiment on their roads in 20152. At first, they needed a human driver, just in case. As time passes, the tech improves and a human driver isn’t needed anymore.

(As a technical aside, this means jumping from Level 2 of automated driving to Level 4. The industry is currently developing Level 3. I’ve seen demos of Level 4 technology. It’s impressive.)

Autonomous taxis – Milton Keynes, United Kingdom

Now California, and other American states, are getting ready to allow driverless cars on the streets. In the UK, Milton Keynes is set to be the first city with driverless taxis as of summer 2018.

Why couldn’t this have been Malta?

Why didn’t we attract investment by, say, offering the same tax breaks we offer fintech firms? Google could have set up shop in Malta, experimented on our more demanding road network, and helped create a new industry. At first, we could have let the cars work on a closed circuit like Valletta, and then they could have moved on to a national scale.

We could develop the future in Malta

We could be the world’s testbed.

Where was our Ministry of Transport when we needed it?

II

I’m not just talking about autonomous cars either.

The US Navy has deployed the first autonomous boat for use. The UK already has autonomous ships on its maritime register. With our maritime tradition, we could set something up in that sector. There’s talk of magnetic berthing and of using satellite navigation for autonomous port management.

We could have been in the forefront by inviting companies do their research here. Rolls Royce opened a research centre for autonomous maritime transport in Finland. Even if they brought talent with them, job opportunities would have arisen before long. We could have offered deals including some work with our university too.

Imagine your children being able to go to their first job interview with a CV boasting about this sort of cutting edge project.

Imagine the multiplier effects on the economy.

Do you want your children working on these futuristic projects?

The UK announced a 30-year maritime industrial strategy.

Where is the Malta Maritime Authority when you need it?

III

Let’s be clear about the benefits here. Adding another sector to our industry is no mean feat and would be one way to attract attention from the Silicon Valley giants. Most of them are flush with cash and just need a reason to spend it. (Up till earlier this year, Apple had USD 252.4 billion tied up offshore which it hadn’t repatriated due to the taxes. They’d have invested a fraction of it.)

Developing a use for technology is a path to success

Balancing the economy away from its dependence on tourism and online gambling is also a wise move. It’s good to have one strong industry, but weighting an economy in favour of one industry makes the economy is fragile. That means it is more susceptible to shocks in that sector.

A bold strategy focusing on emerging technology means downstream development would happen in Malta. That is where the money is. After all, developing technology is one way of becoming a success, but developing a use for technology is a sure way to become a giant.

Just ask AirBnB.

Let me imagine a situation I thought up:

Business class tickets on airlines come with perks. Virgin Atlantic, for instance, will send you a chauffeured car to pick you up if you fly business class6. Using an automated vehicle, you’re picked up at the right time. It will deliver this to your mobile device or print it for you. Your vehicle, which can scan itself for security purposes, takes you straight to a fast track security line. It then trundles off to deliver your bag to wherever bags go.

Creating a use for technology is what is lucrative

Cool idea, right?

Imagine entrepreneurs with these kind of ideas. They trial them in the place where this tech is being rolled out. They can work with the airport to overcome the security rules which make my simple description impossible. They can work with airlines to understand how to interface with their systems. Once the idea is operational, licensing the idea around the world means the Maltese economy continues to grow.

Creating a use for technology is always more lucrative than creating the technology itself.

I know what you’re thinking: this isn’t even futuristic. All these things are available today using current technology.

What about the future?

IV

Uber’s chief product officer, Jeff Holden, presented at this year’s Web summit in Lisbon. He announced plans to work with NASA to have a flying taxi service by 2020. The American company added it wanted to launch this service across Europe to help with congestion. In the meantime Google’s Larry Page has a company in New Zealand which is waiting for approval to use autonomous flying taxis.

Malta has one of the highest densities of cars per capita in the world and is ripe for a solution.

We could be the ones solving this.

Why aren’t we?

IV

The answer, I’m sorry to say, is because our government doesn’t look that far into the future. Successive administrations limited the scope of their strategies to no more than the next 5- or 10-year period. They want to cover the length of their term in office, and refuse to commit to anything beyond their electoral predictions.

This time round there is a long-term strategy – the National Transport Strategy 20509. It exists because there is the need to adhere to European planning. Read it. It’s light on details. It makes no mention of futuristic tech other than to say “there should be space” for research and innovation.

As a result, there is not clear coupling of a transport strategy and an industrial strategy.

And we lose out.

Remind me – why do we vote for these people?

References

  1. Waymo Is Millions Of Miles Ahead In Robot Car Tests; Does It Need A Billion More?; Alan Ohnsman; Forbes; 2018-03-02
  2. Driverless cars given green light to operate in California; Tim Bradshaw; The Financial Times; 2018-02-27
  3. Grab a pod: driverless taxis set to roll in Milton Keynes; Nicholas Hellen; The Sunday Times; 2017-12-24
  4. UK’s first fully autonomous vessel the C-Worker 7 is launched; Grame Paton; The Times; 2018-03-01
  5. Apple Leads These Companies With Massive Overseas Cash Repatriation Tax Bills; Lisa Marie Segarra; Fortune.com; 2018-01-18
  6. Upper Class transfers; Virgin Atlantic; (Retrieved 2018-06-11)
  7. Uber hails Nasa backing for flying taxis ‘in three years’; Katie Gibbons; The Times; 2017-11-09
  8. Larry Page’s Kitty Hawk unveils autonomous flying taxis; Samuel Gibbs; The Guardian; 2018-03-13
  9. National Transport Strategy 2050; Transport Malta; 2016-10-07

All references were valid and correct when this article was published. Changes to referenced websites or web pages may render some references invalid. If this is the case, please leave a comment below.


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