We live in exciting times where different technologies are converging to change the way we live. Are transport systems the most transformable area of all? Thanks to cutting edge research and development around the world, we appear to be on the cusp of a new wave of planes, trains and automobiles which will revolutionise the way in which we get from A to B: faster (much faster!), safer, easier, greener and maybe even cheaper.

Research and development in transport systems

The research and development (R&D) will be occurring in a huge number of disciplines to deliver these awe-inspiring transport systems. Some of the main ones include:

  • Materials – strong, light-weight, durable… to cope with extremes of force or heat, and deliver fuel efficiency.
  • Artificial Intelligence (AI) – to take over driving responsibilities in cars and enhance safety systems.
  • Jet technology – to deliver a new generation of supersonic or even hypersonic transportation.
  • Big data – to inform the AI systems of tomorrow.
  • Aerodynamics – reducing air friction is an important part of the jigsaw for high speed travel.
  • Electromagnetics – a 21st century solution to propulsion.
  • Power generation and storage – solar, batteries, fuel cells… ‘green’ is definitely the new black.
  • User experience – how humans will cope and safely interact with these sci-fi systems. Because they are extreme!

Spread across trains, planes and cars, some of the technologies we explore are in existence today.  Some are for the near future. All are rather mind blowing.

R&D takes trains from steam to electromagnetic levitation

The development of the passenger train must rank as one of the most significant innovations of the 19th Century. It revolutionised the speed of travel and even contributed to the standardisation of time-keeping. Since then they have been a constant source of innovation from steam to diesel, the development of high speed bullet trains in Japan in the 1950s, to right now and the introduction of mag lev (magnetic levitation) trains around the world.

Maglev is a fascinating technology that does away with the need for wheels. Instead, it uses electromagnetic principles to levitate the 50-tonne vehicles between 1-10cm in the air. If that is not sci-fi enough for you, the technology then uses the magnetic laws of attraction and repulsion to propel the trains above the tracks at speeds of around 400km/h.

The concept was actually cooked up at the start of the 20th Century but technology of the time was far too limiting for it to become a reality back then. R&D money poured into it in the second half of the century and there have been a smattering of low speed maglev trains around the world; including one in Birmingham which operated in the 1980s and 1990s. It is speed we are interested in here though and the first high speed maglev train was launched in China in 2004. The maglev train connected Shanghai’s airport with its commercial district. A 30km distance that took 45 minutes by road. The maglev does it in eight minutes flat! Reaching a top speed of 431km/h. There has not been a large roll out of high speed maglevs since then, although Japan has been investing heavily in the technology and in 2015 broke the speed record for a train, with the JR Central Railway company clocking 603km/h. That’s double the speed of Eurostar. As well as their speed, maglev trains have other significant benefits: they offer a smoother journey than traditional railways as they are levitating. And similarly, because they are not in contact with the ground and therefore do not have friction to deal with, there is far less wear and tear – so running costs are considerably lower. It’s not all good news though as construction costs are huge and this is one of the technological challenges that engineers around the world are working to overcome.

Hyperloop – A fifth mode of transport

Remarkably, maglev isn’t the only floating train in town. The Hyperloop concept, being championed by R&D thoroughbred Elon Musk and developed by a host of companies around the world, offers an even more ground-breaking transport solution. In Elon Musk’s words, Hyperloop is a cross between “a Concorde, an air-hockey table and a railgun.”

What is hyperloop?

If that is not quite painting a picture, what is proposed is a low or zero pressure tubular based transport system designed to compete in the short haul air route markets. Capsules would be propelled through the tubes via maglev technology or air bearings. The combination of this plus the low pressure means Hyperloop could reach speeds of more than 700mph (over 1,100kph).

That’s London to Edinburgh, or LA to San Francisco in half an hour.

Sounds great, but this is nowhere near as developed as high speed maglevs, which themselves are not commonplace. Extensive R&D will need to be conducted to answer questions like:

What is the most effective propulsion system for Hyperloop? Established maglev (chilled superconducting magnets which are expensive to install) is one option. One start-up called Hyperloop Transportation Technologies (HTT) is working on an alternative known as passive magnetic levitation. This features regular magnets arranged in a special formation called the Halbach Array which creates currents in insulated coils within the track. Another company, Hyperloop One, is working on an air cushion concept that sees transportation capsules float like the puk on an air hockey table. The analogy ends there, fortunately, so rather than being struck with a giant air hockey pusher the capsules would be propelled by air compressors.

Zero or low pressure Hyperloop tubes? Zero pressure tubes mean no air resistance (so faster and more efficient) but are technically very difficult to deliver. Stations, for instance, where people are moving about, cannot be a vacuum. And the slightest breach in the tubes would cause re-pressurisation leading to technical troubles and expensive maintenance. Low pressure tubes on the other hand would still have some air resistance but would be far simpler to maintain. Research and development work is being done to explore using powerful fans placed at intervals along the tube to extract air.

How would humans cope with the experience of high speed Hyperloop travel? Once up to speed and travelling in a straight line, there would not be many physical effects – although research would probably need to be undertaken to understand the psychology of travelling at such high speeds in cramped pods. It probably won’t be for everyone! However, the sensations during acceleration and deceleration could be extreme and travelling around bends would create strong G-Force.

Who is developing Hyperloop?

Elon Musk floated the idea in a 2013 paper, but he is not associated with any of the companies developing it. He got the ball rolling, intellectually, and now via his company SpaceX, is trying to accelerate the development. They currently have a competition aimed at universities and independent engineering teams to design the best Hyperloop pod. To support this, SpaceX has developed a one-mile Hyperloop test track next to its Hawthorne, California HQ.

Another company, Hyperloop One is working on developing a commercial Hyperloop system. They are developing components of advanced hardware to aid research including Blade Runner, a Levitation Rig, The Big Tube, and The Tube Lab. Hyperloop One also have a competition to encourage innovation and are collaborating with other organisations around the world to explore potential real world application. These include linking the capital cities of Finland and Helsinki in Scandinavia, developing a fully automated freight transport system in Switzerland and most recently, exploring using a Hyperloop system as a commuter network in Moscow.

Sonic boom – Son of Concorde

Being Bristol-based R&D tax credit experts we are well aware of the proud heritage of Concorde in the city. Although a technological marvel, sadly, it proved to be commercially unviable. And the world has not seen another passenger jet like it, since its mothballing in 2003. But is that going to change soon?

Someone else who was feeling blue at the demise of Concorde was ex-Amazon executive Blake Scholl. After waiting for someone else to develop a Concorde replacement (as he never got to ride the original), he eventually stepped up and decided to do it himself. Boom is touted as a future supersonic passenger jet capable of flying from London to New York in 3 ½ hours at Mach 2.2. Concorde had a top speed of Mach 2.04. A modest improvement. But the real clincher with Boom will be the cost of a ticket. Seats on Concorde went for about $20,000 a pop. Boom tickets will sell for about $5,000. About the cost of business class – so far more commercially viable than Concorde was.

Some of the R&D behind Boom

The Boom team are planning on completing their prototype by the end of 2016. They summarise their R&D project as “combining jet engines and carbon fibre, advanced design software and wind tunnel tests.” A diverse range of R&D areas as you would expect from such a ground-breaking vehicle. With sectors such as aerospace there are often long supply chains with many innovative smaller companies developing bespoke, specialist components for the end product. The R&D going on at this level is just as legitimate for R&D tax credit purposes as innovation taking place at the very largest companies whose name goes on the side of the aeroplanes.

Scram jets – Hypersonic air travel

So if Boom can take us to above Mach 2 for the price of a business class ticket, how does Mach 10 sound? That is Los Angeles to Sydney in ninety minutes. For now, it is pie in the sky but for future generations of aeroplane it may become a reality. The technology that would power this lightning quick transport is called Scram Jet and was actually conceptualised all the way back in the 1950s. Remarkably Scram Jets have no moving parts. The core scientific principle is that they take air into their engine at supersonic speed before combustion, and therefore do not require an air compressor as with regular jets. And here lies one of the key technological challenges preventing them from being a reality to date. They need to be travelling at supersonic speed before they will work. Therefore, they have to have a multi-stage launch system to get them up to speed.

NASA holds the Scram Jet speed record clocking Mach 9.68 back in 2004. To achieve that they launched their X43-a aircraft from the undercarriage of a cruising B-52 bomber, and used solid rocket engines to achieve critical speed. Boeing did the same with their own experimental Scram Jet, the X-51. For commercial travel of the future, speeds of Mach 4 or 5 are being suggested.

As exciting as they sound, Scram Jets are still a long way off in terms of civilian air travel. Before then, it is more likely that we will see military application, in cruise missile technology for instance, and space exploration such as being used to launch satellites into low orbit.

Obvious areas of research and development are wind tunnel testing, where generating the air speeds involved is challenging; materials development and temperature research around 1,000 degrees Celsius. Another significant technological challenge that needs to be overcome to give commercial Scram Jets lift off is the development of computers powerful enough to run the required simulations. This is a nice example of the R&D that lies behind breakthrough technologies. It is not all about the end physical product. Many fields of research need to be undertaken that feed into the engineering process and they could all be relevant to an R&D tax credit claim.

SABRE – a UK rival to Scram Jet technology

A different hypersonic system is being developed by Oxfordshire-based Reaction Engines. They are working on a combined-cycle air breathing and rocket engine that could accelerate from a runway take off to Mach 5. It could even work in space where it could achieve greater speeds still. After some recent technical success and a £20 million investment from BAE systems, the team is in an expansion stage planning to grow from 75 engineers to 150 over two years.

R&D behind self-driving cars

If supersonic and hypersonic travel are for the future, self-driving cars are pretty much here now. Some systems are being implemented incrementally, normally in the guise of optional safety systems. Think adaptive cruise control, lane assist, low speed collision prevention and automatic parking to name a few. These systems use sensors like radar and cameras to do specific tasks. They could all be considered individual components that would contribute to what would be required for a fully driverless car.

Self-driving cars will soon join the dots between these systems and eventually remove the human driver from being primarily in control. There are big players involved. Google is at the forefront with their distinct electric bubble vehicles. Apple is rumoured to be interested in joining the fray. Tesla released a software update called Autopilot at the back end of 2015. And many of the traditional car manufacturers are developing their own systems.

Big data and self-driving cars

A key part of this is collecting and analysing data from actual automation. The way Google and Tesla have undertaken this is interesting. Google does not have a commercial product yet, but has been operating test cars around the world and has collected 1.5 million test miles worth of data.

Tesla on the other hand included all the hardware on some of their cars back in 2014 and collected real world data while their cars were being driven by humans. Then a year later, they used that data to create a software update which they issued to their cars called autopilot. This gave drivers the option hand control of the vehicle over to the autopilot (albeit while keeping hands on the wheel and paying attention to the road).

They are constantly collecting data and have 130 million miles worth of information dwarfing Google’s haul. This allows them to modify and fine tune the software. As we speak a new software update, Autopilot 8.0, is being readied for release that has a new interface, energy conservation route planning and automatic off-ramping.

It should be noted that what Tesla are doing and what Google are aiming for at launch are not quite the same thing. Tesla essentially has a beta programme running in which users are advised to keep hands on the steering wheel. Google, as we are about to see, are designing cars that do not even have steering wheels.

Engineering self-driving cars

Google started out their testing by modifying fleets of Toyota Prius and RX450h’s. They have now engineered their own bespoke vehicle designed from the ground up to be driverless. That means no steering wheel, an interior designed for riding not driving, a sensor pod on the roof that contains lasers, radars and cameras, electric batteries to power the vehicle, purpose built computers and systems for automated driving – pure R&D.

Benefits of self-driving cars

What are the benefits of self-driving cars? There is a raft of major benefits that will come with self-driving cars.

  • They will empower people currently restricted in how they travel such as those with disabilities and the elderly, allowing them to get about and connect more with loved ones and society in general.
  • They will almost certainly reduce accidents. Google cites 1.2 million deaths per year worldwide in car accidents, with 94% of those that occur in America caused by human error.
  • They will hand journey time back to families allowing them to spend quality time together.
  • They will be more efficient. Self-driving vehicles will be able to share journey information with each other, allowing advanced route planning based on real-time shared information.
  • They will be greener. The big players are developing the technology hand-in-hand with electric vehicles. Automated driving styles are likely to be more energy efficient and the advanced route planning will help too.

This video from Google shows exactly how it could impact lives.

Accidents and the morality of driverless cars

An interesting aside from the engineering behind driverless cars is the ethics of the AI. How should cars be coded to deal with life and death situations? This video summarising a survey shows that it is by no means a simple question and it could make or break the future of driverless cars.

Such surveys would be unlikely to be an allowable cost in an R&D tax credit claim, but the resulting coding that informs the AI how to behave during a crash certainly would be.

Sadly, accidents resulting in injury and fatality will happen, and in May 2016 the first fatal crash involving Tesla autopilot happened. As this is written, it is still early days but it appears the car’s sensors failed to distinguish a white lorry against a bright sky and the car ploughed into its side at high speed killing the driver. Within the message of condolence that Tesla gave it highlighted that in the USA there is a fatality every 94 million miles. Tesla Autopilot had completed 130 million miles before the fatality. During a difficult time, it does perhaps highlight that the system was outperforming human drivers.

R&D tax credits in the transport sector

As we have seen, there is a huge amount of R&D going on in the transport sector. You don’t have to be working on the ground-breaking vehicles we have looked at in this blog.  Improving components to existing vehicles, or developing better manufacturing processes are still highly likely to qualify your company for R&D tax credits. To discuss claiming, or seeing if an existing claim is optimised call ForrestBrown today.

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