To celebrate European Mobility Week, engineer Birgitte Keulen looks at how digital transport technology determines even our physical journeys

By Brigitte Keulen

A journey through the Netherlands sometimes feels like travelling to the future.

When I drive my electric car from the Netherlands to my job in Luxembourg, I can usually find a fast charging station without much planning at the start of the trip. But on the stretch between Brussels and Luxembourg I need to make sure I don’t miss a stop near Namur. After that there is a true fast charging desert.

That’s not the only way the Netherlands seems advanced. I spend much longer in Belgian traffic jams, compared to the Netherlands. It gives me a good idea about how intelligent transport systems (ITS) can make our commutes smoother. Just like using, which I use to make sure my train is on time. It’s all helped by the fact that the Netherlands has a lot of open data.  Open data on our phones allow us to use less congested roads, thereby spreading the stress on the infrastructure.

These factors are increasingly on my mind as I help decide on projects to be financed by the European Investment Bank. Our long-term finance to transport projects that focuses on large infrastructure, climate and environment or innovative companies, small and large, follows EU policy. That’s nowadays all about making transport smarter (more digital), cleaner (through cleaner modes like public transport, but also technology like electric vehicles), and safer (automated transport and support systems like traffic monitoring systems can make travel safer).

Great examples across the world

Still, it isn’t only the Netherlands that’s on the right track.

  • In Kaunas, the second-largest city in Lithuania, I discovered something new: an app for blind people that declares which bus line just stopped in front of them. That increases independence!
  • In Belgium, EIB  support will help install LED lightbulbs along 2,700 kilometres of roads, changing 70,000 bulbs. This smart network will be more energy efficient and link the lighting to traffic
  • In Northern Italy, we are advising the creation of buffer areas for ports, where cargo can be stored inland, linked in real-time to an information system that helps determine when the cargo can and should be moved to the actual port. This will greatly help manage capacity and could be replicated for airport freight
  • In Ukraine, we are looking at technology to measure weights of trucks using Weigh-In-Motion systems, only diverting overloaded trucks to measurement stations. Overloaded trucks are a major issue for road quality, and so far, random checks have made it attractive for operators to take unnecessary risks
  • In Slovenia (and elsewhere), electronic road-tolling vignettes are being rolled out to make sure that trucks pay for the actual time they spend on the roads
  • In June, the EIB signed a EUR 500 million loan with Fiat Chrysler to support research and development for electric mobility and autonomous driving

Challenges with digital transport technology

Smart digital infrastructure is all around us already, and will become more and more ubiquitous in the coming years. That’s great. But we need to be aware of what could go wrong.

Privacy is an obvious issue. With the traffic-monitoring systems, it is extremely easy to keep track of everyone, everywhere, all of the time. With autonomous cars, will you be able to check where your partner took the car last night? Can the police write out a ticket as soon as the system registers a licence plate arriving at the next toll, if the time it arrives suggest it must have been speeding? Should the police be able to stop your car digitally?

Cybersecurity is an equally obvious, and related, issue. Suppose you trust the public sector with complete information and control over your mobility. What if someone hacks into the system? Controlling either the lighting on the streets—or even the actual cars—could have devastating consequences.

Use of technology has to be matched by the relevant skills in the public sector, which often lags behind in its ability to attract technological talent. This can lead to expensive technology being bought, but not fully taken advantage of. It also raises issues of data protection.

Impact of digital transport technology on society

Digitalisation in the economy in general (not just in mobility) allows for a lot more teleworking. This, in turn, reduces the use of public infrastructure. But it’s still an enormous challenge to decarbonise our society fully.

If everybody plays their part, great things can happen.  The energy and mobility worlds will become more interlinked. Through the more innovative projects the EU bank advises on and finances, I hope to do my part in accelerating the adoption of these technologies.

This is an edited version of an article published by the International Project Management Association magazine ‘Projectie’ in September 2018 in the Netherlands.