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Oxfordshire: a council in the thick of mobility innovation

Oxfordshire County Council is engaged in an extraordinary number of research projects in the mobility field. Andrew Forster speaks to Llewelyn Morgan, the council’s service manager for infrastructure, innovation and development, about what’s being explored and why

Andrew Forster
11 May 2018
Llewelyn Morgan with a connected and autonomous car being used in the DRIVEN project. Trials are already underway on public roads in Oxfordshire
Llewelyn Morgan with a connected and autonomous car being used in the DRIVEN project. Trials are already underway on public roads in Oxfordshire
The Royal Mail has ordered electric vans from Arrival, which has a factory in Banbury. Arrival is also involved in Oxfordshire’s vehicle-to-grid project and an autonomous vehicle trial near Didcot
The Royal Mail has ordered electric vans from Arrival, which has a factory in Banbury. Arrival is also involved in Oxfordshire’s vehicle-to-grid project and an autonomous vehicle trial near Didcot
Oxford has three dockless bike hire operators, which could be incorporated into a MaaS operation
Oxford has three dockless bike hire operators, which could be incorporated into a MaaS operation

 

Electric vehicles, hydrogen vehicles, driverless vehicles, Mobility as a Service, open data, ride-hailing apps, public bike hire schemes... a bewildering array of disruptive transport technologies and mobility products have emerged in recent years. But how should local authorities respond? Help pioneer each one? Embrace just one or two? Or let others take the lead? Hertfordshire County Council’s cabinet member for highways recently summed up the choice in the context of road technology developments: “We don’t know exactly what is going to happen, or when, or how, but Iwant us to track and influence the impending revolution within the county, rather than sit back and see things get done to us.”  

One authority already embracing transport innovation in a big way is Oxfordshire County Council. Driverless cars are being tested on the county’s roads. Oxford’s residents are trialling different methods of electric vehicle charging. A vehicle-to-grid pilot scheme is about to get underway. A new journey planning app is imminent, and a Mobility as a Service (MaaS) project could be on the cards. The council is also involved in a range of projects exploring new uses for transport data, and is about to ask the modelling community for ideas about innovations in a new strategic transport model. 

An innovation and research team manages the council’s participation in the projects. The team is managed by Laura Peacock who reports to Llewelyn Morgan, the council’s service manager for infrastructure, innovation and development. 

Morgan explains that the team started life focused solely on transport innovations but, over time, has spread out to cover the related fields of energy and the environment. By this summer it should be 15-strong. 

“From our very unscientific talking to other people I think we’re the biggest [transport-related innovation] team outside Transport for London,” he says. “For a while we were bigger than TfL but as soon as it decided it wanted an innovation team it got quite big quite quickly. We work really closely with TfL now.”

Morgan, 39, thinks there’s a strong case for councils to become more engaged in mobility research and development. “Councils have to get close to research like this, because user-influenced solutions are going from research to implementation more quickly than ever before. In the past, a new transport solution could take ten years to go from research to implementation. Now, it can take as little as 18 months to two years for some solutions, particularly those that are user-centred and software-driven.”

In Oxfordshire’s case, there’s a strong local economy argument too: the county is home to many of the businesses and research establishments that work in this field. “The job overlaps a bit with inward investment or promotion of the county,” says Morgan. “Oxfordshire has world experts in these areas, so there’s the opportunity here through our transport policy to enable business development. Ian [Hudspeth] our leader has always pushed for making more use of the cutting-edge technology that happens to be on our doorstep. We’re trying to make sure it’s as easy as possible for them to apply their technology in Oxfordshire. We’ll say: ‘Here’s one of our big challenges around congestion and transport in Oxford, if you can solve that problem but also build a company in Oxfordshire, that’s a win-win,’ and that’s why our elected members are really interested.”

The county is home to no fewer than four connected and autonomous vehicle (CAV) companies and last September the Government announced that the Culham Science Centre, just south of Oxford, would be a test site for driverless vehicles, operating in partnership with the Millbrook Proving Ground in Bedfordshire. The University of Oxford and Oxford Brookes University both have specialisms in energy and the environment, adds Morgan, and Brookes has a motorsports and engineering team that has plenty of possible spin-offs for wider mobility. “The most amount of graduates who end up in Formula One come out of Brookes,” he says. Many of Oxfordshire’s citizens are engaged in energy and environment issues too. “We’ve got the Low Carbon Hub here who are the biggest community interest company raising funding for renewables.”

Opportunity knocks

Whereas some people may be daunted by the plethora of transport innovations, all Morgan sees is opportunity. “I think it’s like anything, you go from thinking ‘Oh my God’ to ‘Actually, there’s loads of opportunities here’.

A land-use planner by training, Morgan undertook an MPhil in travel plans in the early 2000s under the supervision of green transport academic John Whitelegg. After spells on a rural transport project in south Northamptonshire and working for consultant Atkins, he joined Northamptonshire County Council initially in a transport role but then changed, partly for fear that he was becoming “too transporty”. “I purposefully said: ‘I’m getting too specialised’, and took myself out of transport. I went and worked on basically everything to do with big development [in Northamptonshire] apart from transport and I also started up the council’s broadband team. Broadband was new and no one knew what the answer was.

“I quite like the space where with three months of in-depth working and research you can become as knowledgeable as anyone else, because no one actually knows the answer!” he laughs. 

He joined Oxfordshire six years ago on a job that was “half broadband, half transport planning”. “One of the reasons why I came to work here is the University of Oxford. I assumed the council would work a lot with the university – it’s on your doorstep and, wow, here’s an opportunity to work with the greatest thinkers in the world. And yet, when I came in, we didn’t do much. There were lots of reason for that but people have changed over the years. The knowledge exchange team at the university [of Oxford] are much more open now – they line you up with professors who want to come and work with us.  

“It’s not often you get to work with a world expert. We get to work regularly with [professor] Paul Newman from the Oxford Robotics Institute, one of the experts in the world on autonomous vehicles. That’s exciting. Malcolm McCulloch of the [University of Oxford’s] energy and power group – he’s our go-to university professor who’s just an amazing thinker. 

“They’re just fascinating people to give challenges and test things through. You’re like [thinking], ‘Wow, what else could we do?’ There’s always something exciting round the corner that you can do. You know the potential is here to solve big problems.”

Morgan explains the council’s part in projects. “We don’t want to be the experts but we do want to be able to get to the experts quickly. So I want Oxford University or Brookes to be the experts, or Southampton University or Leeds or anyone like that. But what our team needs to do is provide a quick route to those experts when we need an answer.

“We’re experts I suppose in the local government world and what we find is that when you talk to the experts in the research and development world and the private sector, people don’t understand local government. So our job is to help decipher that and explain to them how it works. It is proper strategic partnerships where there’s mutual benefit.” 

The innovation and research team comprises a mix of  core-funded and project-funded staff. As well as innovations, the team works on the council’s bid writing for Government funding on transport and community infrastructure, such as the Housing Infrastructure Fund. “We’ve written lots of bids, basically,” says Morgan, explaining this odd mix of work.

Even the team’s project-funded staff get the opportunity to devote some time to work not associated with their project, he says. “What we try to do is ensure that team members are not fully 100 per cent project-funded. Quite often they will be 80 per cent project-funded but if you give them 20 per cent, that allows them to do other things, to develop their own thinking.”

The team has been recruited from a range of backgrounds. “We’ve purposefully tried to get people in [to the team] who aren’t necessarily transport people. Two job adverts for the same type of role went out at the same time, one was for a transport planning assistant or something and the other was for a research assistant and the research assistant had 40 applications, ten with PhDs, whereas the transport planning assistant had I think six applications.”

Given that the team is working on cutting-edge projects, one might expect the council to find retaining staff a struggle, with consultants and research establishments keen to poach the expertise. But Morgan says there isn’t much churn. “We’ve got people here who could probably earn more money in the private sector if they wanted to but they wouldn’t have the freedom to develop interesting areas and they wouldn’t necessarily have that bigger impact on communities and the longevity of seeing a project out.” Furthermore, the projects give staff the opportunity to work with world-leading researchers and Oxford has its own cultural attractions as a place to live and work.  

MobOx

Morgan emphasises the role that the MobOx Foundation, a community interest company, has played in helping the council engage in transport research. Oxfordshire County Council is a founding member along with the two universities and three local businesses: Zeta Automotive, a manufacturer of electronic control products for vehicles; StreetDrone, a developer of autonomous vehicles for teaching, R&D and testing; and PrestonIMC, an intelligent mobility consultancy led by Mark Preston who is also team principal of the Formula E electric motor racing team Techeetah.

“MoBox has been really important for us,” says Morgan, who is a director of the company. “Especially in the early days it helped provide the backbone to setting up what we do in the council, in terms of understanding the process of innovation, understanding how research and development works in the private and public sector, and getting in some of the support we get from the private sector – the informal help that we get. It gave us the ability to talk to people too.

“Because it’s a company it can be the lead bidder for an innovation project as well. It’s now finding its feet in terms of what it does and it seems to be around dissemination, very early stage research, and the sort of peer review process.”

Connected and autonomous

Connected and autonomous vehicles (CAVs) are a big interest for the council. “Outside of the big manufacturers I think we’re doing a good job – we’ve got four CAV companies [in the county] – Arrival, Roborace, Oxbotica and StreetDrone,” Morgan explains. “Arrival in Banbury are building the electric Royal Mail vehicles – they’re built for [being] autonomous but their initial model is around electric vehicles. Roborace are an autonomous vehicle racing group that are going around the world alongside Formula E. StreetDrone are developing an open platform [autonomous] car – the idea is you can use it as a minimum viable product testing vehicle. It allows anyone to buy a reasonably-priced AV to test and adopt however they want.” StreetDrone advertises its vehicles as starting at £59,950. 

The fourth company, Oxbotica, develops autonomous vehicle software and is the lead partner in the Innovate UK-funded DRIVEN project, which is exploring commercial and regulatory issues surrounding CAVs using a fleet of six vehicles operating in ‘Level 4’ high automation mode. The project is focused on Oxford and London.

Cars have been driven in driverless mode on public roads in Oxford since last summer, says Morgan. “A lot of it is around north Oxford at the moment, around Summertown [where Oxbotica is based]. They’re using Culham [Science Centre] for the intensive testing for the technology and now they’re starting on going round Culham on the rural roads as well.” The vehicles are in a special livery and say ‘This is a driverless car’.

“We’re really interested in the potential of the data we get from the cars but also in what data can be pushed to the car to tell it about things that are happening on the road ahead of it,” says Morgan. “It would be useful to tell it there’s congestion ahead and it could re-route, those sorts of things.

“What’s really interesting about that project is the real-time geofenced insurancing system that they were looking at,” he adds. “So can the insurance level be real-time? Potentially, if autonomous vehicles become prevalent, do you get real-time insurance based on the journey you took, the number of people you had in it, and all sorts of things? That’s why the insurance companies are part of all these [CAV] projects because they’re trying to solve those problems. If they solve those problems of real-time insurancing that potentially starts to give us insight into the way we might manage roads in the future. They might develop the technology that allows real-time charging. That then changes the way you manage road networks.”

The full list of DRIVEN’s project partners is Oxbotica, Oxfordshire, Transport for London, TRL, the University of Oxford, the Oxford Robotics Institute, RACE, Nominet (cyber security), Telefonica (communications) and XL Catlin (insurance) and Westbourne Communications.

RACE (Remote Applications in a Controlled Environment) is part of the UK Atomic Energy Authority, and  based at Culham Science Centre – a fenced former World War 2 airfield with a 10km road network, between Oxford and Didcot. RACE is researching robotics for use in fields such as nuclear operation and decommissioning, deep sea oil and gas extraction, and intelligent mobility. Last September the Government awarded £6.9m to MCTEE (Millbrook-Culham Test and Evaluation Environment) to allow the Millbrook Proving Ground in Bedfordshire and RACE to set up test areas to allow testing of autonomous vehicles before they are used on public roads. 

“We hope that companies will come in and use it [Culham] for part of their testing,” says Morgan. He envisages firms wanting to test specific pieces of software to help autonomous driving. “What we want to build up in the UK is people who become experts in, I don’t know, tree detection, or detection of when it snows, or sensor developments, those sort of things. If they get to a stage where they’re confident that their car works well then they’ll probably want to go beyond the [science centre] gates. So we have to then work closely with them on how we manage that.” 

Two members of the county’s innovation and research team are dedicated to CAV projects. “We’ve got a team leader who’s mostly working on the DRIVEN project and a lead technologist who sits in that team as well,” says Morgan. “They’re funded through the DRIVEN project primarily at the moment but we set it up with that longer vision of working closely with RACE. So we recently got some funding for some feasibility work around AVs and Mobility as a Service and we’re keen to appoint a joint fixed term post [for that] with us and RACE.”

Mobility as a Service

Earlier this year Innovate UKawarded £2.5m to a two-and-a-half-year autonomous public transport vehicle trial in Oxfordshire led by FirstGroup. The trial is focused on the Milton Park business centre close to Didcot and the project also has a Mobility as a Service dimension (LTT02 Mar). As well as the county and district councils, project partners include Arrival and local MaaS system developer Zipabout. 

Oxfordshire has been working with Zipabout on a multi-modal journey planner, Zipp.to, which is due for launch imminently. “That’s properly multi-modal – park-and-ride, dockless bikes, it also has a learning system built into it so the more you use it the more personalised it becomes,” Morgan explains. “If you’ve got a saved journey and, for instance, something’s happened on the A34, the idea is it’ll warn you and suggest, ‘Why don’t you go to Didcot and get the train in to Oxford today?’

“Because it’s built on lots of existing data we can then use that as a really good tool for putting in something like a Mobility as a Service product on top. So we’re talking to MaaS providers to say, ‘There’s a journey planning tool that could allow you to plug in your services’. We’re talking to our local partners about if there is a way we can do something in a small-scale pilot.” 

Morgan says there are “all sorts of internal opportunities” for MaaS to play a role in the council’s own social care and school transport.

“We think all the key elements of MaaS are in Oxford because we’ve got good bus companies; we’ve got the public transport data integrated by all the operators; we’ve got car club companies – Zipcar and Co-wheels; and we’ve got dockless bikes. So we’ve got a lot of choice.”

Oxford has four bike hire firms: HourBike’s dock-based system mainly based in Headington and three dockless systems: Mobike, Ofo, and Ponybike. In all, Morgan believes there are about 1,000 hire bikes in the city. Although Mobike is Chinese, the Oxford operation is managed by Cycle.Land, “a sort of Airbnb for bikes” start-up that came out of the University of Oxford. “The idea is you could put your bike up [on its website] and someone pays for it, collects it and uses it for the day.”

Electric and hydrogen

The Go Ultra Low Oxford project, funded by the Office for Low Emission Vehicles, is testing different approaches to electric vehicle charging in the city’s terraced residential areas, where vehicles have to be parked on-street. The project is being run by Oxford City Council and the county council, and the University of Oxford’s Transport Studies Unit and Centre on Innovation and Energy Demand are conducting user analysis.

The trial was intended to identify lessons to inform a national roll-out but the DfT has now opened a funding stream for councils, although ministers recently expressed disappointment with the low level of interest shown. 

“It’s no surprise that a lot of the authorities have not taken up that funding because who knows how to do this,” says Morgan. “I think the drawdown of funding will be slower because they [councils] need the feedback from the likes of us and the London boroughs who are doing it to say, ‘If you do this, this seems to work the best way.’”

Oxford’s project is testing equipment supplied by five manufacturers: eVolt, ENSTO, New Motion, Ubitricity and Zeta. Six different types of charging equipment are being trialled: two types of lamp column charging (Ubitricity’s smart cable system and Evolt’s Opticharge in which the metering is in the lamp column); three types of charging bollard (eVolt, ENSTO and Zeta); and a home charger installed across the pavement in lockable gullies, which removes the trip hazard for pedestrians. Morgan is impressed by the latter’s simplicity. 

The trial hasn’t gone as smoothly as anticipated. “Our main issue is the grid – loads of them [charging points] have had to await an electrical connection. We’ve had quite a few issues where they [the electricity distribution network operator, DNO] have done an initial survey and said the capabilities are there. The issues have largely been resolved with the pilot sites, but it is likely to be a consistent issue with on-street EV charging. The city council, who are managing the project, have raised this on the risk register for wider roll out.”

 Oxfordshire is a partner in a new European Investment Bank project, HelloEV, designed to accelerate the uptake of electric vehicles through European-wide bulk purchasing. “The idea is bulk-buying relieves the need for government grants – you sell the vehicles directly into businesses with a discount you get from bulk-buying,” Morgan explains. “There’s a core management group from all the partners across Europe and they all buy together and you get allocated an amount each. Our target is 100 vehicles to sell in three years but we’re hopeful that, with the way EV sales are going up, we’ll get way past that. We’ve done that with a local partner, UrbanDNA.”

In February, Innovate UK announced funding for a large-scale vehicle-to-grid project in Oxford. Led by EDF Energy R&D UK, the V2GO project also includes the University of Oxford, the county council, electric van manufacturer Arrival, EO Charging, Upside Energy, and Fleet Innovation.

“The aim there is we’re going to test the capability of using batteries in vehicles for balancing the grid,” says Morgan. “If you think of delivery vehicles, they finish at 4pm but some of the peak electricity demands are actually 4pm-6pm, so if a vehicle comes back in and still has 40 per cent of its charge, can you use half of it to put back into the grid? Then it [the vehicle] just charges up overnight so that it’s ready to use in the morning.

“The university is going to be using its buildings initially – drawing electricity from the vehicles. The hope is that by the end of the project we’ve found one of our buildings that is suitable as well. We’ve got a host of delivery companies who are going to test it too. There’s a real possibility that, if the business model works, the delivery companies will be really interested in it because they could see how they could reduce their costs, in terms of their building [electricity] costs.”

The electricity fed from the vehicles will only be used  for local buildings, he says. “At the moment we think it will have to be localised because of grid issues; the grid’s not ready to take that weight of energy back so it’ll probably be done with some localised battery storage. But, again, these are the questions to be answered in the project.”

Electricity isn’t the only power source of interest to Oxfordshire: last month the council became a member of the Hydrogen Hub, a network of stakeholders promoting hydrogen as a transport fuel and energy source. Morgan says some of the land at Bicester’s park-and-ride site is reserved for energy experiments. “We’re looking at providing hydrogen refuelling but also potentially battery storage.”

Data and modelling

The council is involved in numerous transport data projects, including one with Google-owned WAZE, the real-time crowd-sourced sat nav. Oxfordshire supplied WAZE with a data feed from the council’s network management system and the council receives a data feed of traffic disruption from WAZE. Morgan says a PhD student from Oxford Brookes University and the Oxford Internet Institute, part of the University of Oxford, are looking into how the data could be used.

The council is keen to explore if real-time traffic data can be incorporated into the replacement for the existing Central Oxfordshire transport model. “We’re asking the market whether we can have something that constantly evolves, so effectively it’s validating all the time,” says Morgan. “At the moment you do a model and every five years update it for a big chunk of money. As we’re getting more and more real-time data, if we can feed that into the model the model can always revalidate itself, so you can effectively always have a new baseline.” He also wants to explore if the new model could be used for predictive analytics of developing traffic situations, allowing the impacts of disruptions to be better managed. 

The county plans to use the relatively new EU innovation partnership procurement route to work with consultants and explore what is possible. “We think we’re going to be one of the first in the country to use that for a relatively big procurement. If you’re going out with something where you don’t really know the answer, you can test the market. You can effectively fund a research and development round – you could take through as many people as you want and at the end of that R&D round you could award the contract to one of those, or not.”

Wider horizons

Oxfordshire is keen to help other authorities set up innovation teams. “We go out to other authorities and tell them what we’re doing. We’re really keen [to see] if we can work out a model to help other places do what we do. It’s not about making loads of money or anything, it’s about trying to support other places.” The council also manages an innovation working group as part of its contribution to the England’s Economic Heartland grouping of councils that stretches from Swindon to Cambridgeshire.

A big internal change is about to happen with the innovation and research team becoming an ‘innovation hub’ for the whole council from July. Morgan will lead the hub full-time. “I don’t really want the team to expand in numbers that big,” he says. “It’s more about supporting service areas, so I would expect the project owners would be in the service areas.”

The change will open up a whole new set of innovations for Morgan and his team to get their teeth into. “We’ve started with adult social care and our first pilot project – using Amazon Echo for testing an enhanced level of adult home care services – has just begun.” 

 
 
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