Nicholas Mazzei is a former Army Officer who now works for BT.
In Aldous Huxley’s 1932 novel Brave New World, people travelled around by all manner of advanced means. While the monorail is perhaps something not be to taken too seriously (if anyone has ever seen the monorail episode in the Simpson’s, you’ll understand why), Huxley’s TaxiCopters aren’t too far from reality. Chinese drone maker Ehang Inc. have already created a drone capable of carrying a person. While the proposal is still in development, the TaxiCopter concept is entirely feasible with current technology, we are held back only by our ability to understand the technology and manage it with legislation. Yet, we are still obsessed with investing in old technology incapable of delivering for Britain’s future.
HS2 and HS3 for example is an utterly flawed infrastructure development, looking to be costing ten times as much as the French equivalent. The technology is many years out of date and won’t be finished well into the 2030s. It is being surpassed rapidly by much more effective and efficient modes of transport. Driverless cars and drone taxis (with some drones big enough to carry two or more people) will be rolling out across Britain within the next 5 years. Our roads and skies will be dominated by these modes of transport, while HS2 and 3 will barely be halfway through development.
There are many other opportunities for very fast, direct travel to locations around the UK which outweigh the 250mph and ludicrously high cost of HS2. The much vaunted Hyperloop for example, based on traveling through evacuated tubes, is an idea that dates back more than a century. This would enable speeds of a single carriage to nearly 750mph and is currently in development by tech visionary Elon Musk. It may yet not be a success, but considering the potential £80bn cost of HS2 and 3 which will shave off only 30 mins from the current London to Birmingham travel times, we really should ask ourselves if the value is in trains or in a new technology? Before you say “it’s unproven”, remember; once upon a time steam and Maglev trains, along with jet engines, were unproven.
Transport isn’t the only technological opportunity Britain has. One of the best decisions Theresa May made as PM was to pause the Hinkley Point nuclear power plant development. Years behind in development in both France and Finland, the EPR design is a disaster. Perhaps one of the worst decisions is approving its development with the technology still untested. It’s likely Britain will be the last country to build the EPR, meaning maintaining it will be tricky. Combined with serious issues over China’s investment into our national critical infrastructure, it seems odd to proceed with the project. Many other potential options have been put forward, from micro-reactors we can build in a modular manner, to gas and even to fusion. One breakthrough at the moment is using plants to generate electricity in an even more efficient manner than solar panels. Yet these innovations remain without investment, as we throw good money after old technology.
From Hinkley Point to Trident Nuclear submarines, from HS2 to Grammar schools, we obsess over old ways of working and old technologies to try to build Britain’s future. The end result is always being just one step behind other countries who take the risk on future tech to deliver amazing results. For example, Britain at one point was a world leader in fibre optic cable and began one of the biggest roll outs of fibre in the 1980s. Dr Peter Cochrane, who was once BT’s Chief Technology Officer, said “in 1990, then Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, decided that BT’s rapid and extensive rollout of fibre optic broadband was anti-competitive and held a monopoly on a technology and service that no other telecom company could do… the decision was made to close down the local loop roll out and in 1991 that roll out was stopped. The two factories that BT had built to build fibre related components were sold to Fujitsu and HP, the assets were stripped and the expertise was shipped out to South East Asia. Our colleagues in Korea and Japan, who we were working with quite closely at the time, stood back and looked at what happened to us in amazement. What was pivotal was that they carried on with their respective fibre rollouts. And, well, the rest is history as they say”.
Let’s not repeat the same mistakes as we did in the 1990s. Let’s bin HS2 and build Hyperloop and a network for automated vehicles. Let’s drop Hinkley Point and build more effective, cheaper power stations that we can grow over time, based on a modular design that we can improve and export. Let’s end our obsession with old ways of working, and begin to digitise the NHS, education and government in general.
Most importantly. Let’s build it ourselves with the fantastic knowledge and skills we have in Britain and start exporting. Now that would be a truly Brave New World brought on by Brexit.