Miles Elsden joined Immense earlier in the year as an external advisor. Here is a chance to find out more about Miles, his incredible career background and what he believes the future of mobility might look like
So Miles, tell us a bit about your background and how you came to work with Immense?
I started off as an academic many years ago, a mathematician studying fluid mechanics. I then spent some time working for defence and at the centre of government as a scientific advisor before moving to transport. I wasn’t really a transport person when I went to DfT. Some of the work I had done in the past touched on it, around emissions prediction in diesel engines and some work in aeronautics, but I think having this external perspective was really helpful in providing advice to Ministers and officials.
I have always been interested in innovation and worked to make Government more innovative particularly in the early ideas stage. When the Transport Systems Catapult set up their modelling capability, including the work that Robin was doing, I was particularly interested given my background. Then when he spun out into Immense, I was even more interested as I had been trying to get the transport modelling team in DfT to consider more agent-based approaches to the national transport model! I’d worked on some agent-based modelling on pandemic influenza when I was in GO-Science. I think this approach is really interesting especially in the transport space. Current compute power allows the tracking of enough entities to capture individual interactions and see emergent group dynamic effects. This makes it an interesting approach for transport problems at micro and meso and maybe even macro-scale. When Immense was set up and were using agent-based modelling in that context, I thought it was exactly what was needed. Having left Government a couple of years previously it was a perfect time for me to get involved.
When you worked in government, you worked on some huge projects, advising on the Icelandic volcanic eruption, swine flu, and the Fukushima nuclear disaster, what was that like?
It was interesting! I moved from the ministry of defence to GO-Science, working for John Beddington when he was the Government’s Chief Scientific Advisor, as head of emergencies, defence and security. Three months after I started the swine flu epidemic started. We worked very closely with the Cabinet Office and Department for Health on how to provide the necessary scientific advice to the decision makers. Pandemic influenza had always been a top risk in government so there had been a lot of work done previously on understanding the impact. This was different to other responses I was involved with because it was a really slow burn. Something happened in Mexico and people were wondering if it was going to be the next big influenza, then there were cases in the US. It was really difficult to know if it was going to turn into a massive pandemic. At the early stages we had to make these decisions; how would anti-viral medicine be distributed and to whom? Were we going to buy vaccine and how much? We did lots of interesting modelling on that, advising the prime minister and the secretary of state for health on how to respond, that lasted about nine months. Then a year almost to the day from the start of the Swine Flu response the Icelandic volcano went off!
In the transport sector, what do you think is the most exciting developing at the moment?
I think it’s the way a number of technologies are converging. Mobility-as-a-Service has been around for a while, that’s an interesting one – technology is not really the barrier here it more about business models. Autonomous vehicles are top of the hype cycle, my views are well known that it’s not going to be anywhere near as soon or as widespread as people think, but there are certain applications its really good for. Then there is the electrification of powertrains. When you put those three together it’s a massive change in the way transport is delivered and used. You add that to mobile technologies, the way people use IT and the growth of sharing economy and it all comes together into transport in really quite an interesting way.
You mention Mobility-as-a-service (MaaS), how big do you think it will become?
There are a number of future different scenarios we could end up in. If you take UK versus the US for example, in London, not many people will necessarily own their own cars, you will rent a car when you need one or use an Uber, buses, trains, public transport. That becomes MaaS quite well. However, if you go to the US, specifically away from the East and West coasts the only way you can get around is to own your own vehicle. What an autonomous vehicle and MaaS looks like in that context is very different to what it looks like here in London. What kind of system we get depends on a combination of how the technology develops, what society wants and how policy shapes the market.
What do you think some of the biggest challenges facing the industry are?
One of the big issues is around the dynamic between public sector and private sector and technology. The different directions that Uber or Tesla or Amazon are pulling the technology versus the response of the government and public sector, who are much more concerned with safety and regulation. Government generally moves much more slowly than technology. Autonomous vehicles are a perfect example of this, the hype is they are ready for deployment now and they will be able to work in all driving conditions. The reality is that we’re a long way from that, there are a lot of issues to be resolved, both technical and regulatory! That said, it’s clear that more autonomous vehicles will save lives, as we’ve already seen with level 1 and 2 technologies (ABS, Automatic Breaking, Lane Assist etc) but they won’t be perfect. There is a real challenge there to balance safety and public perception. How we transition from the currently widespread Level 2 technologies to Level 4-5 is not clear. The safe management of mixed vehicle fleets with different levels of automation is going to be a really interesting!
What advice would you give to teenagers, people going off to university who want to get into the Maths, Science, Engineering sector?
Mathematics is fundamental to all of these types of careers in my view. If you have a solid foundation in Mathematics it opens a whole range of opportunities. I’ve learnt I’m ok at mathematics, I’ve met some people who are brilliant, and it’s a completely different way of thinking, but you don’t need to be a maths genius. Mathematics gives you the tools you need to become an engineer, an economist, a scientist or a computer programmer, whatever you want to be. It opens up a lot of opportunities, but you have to have the basics. But I would say that, I’m a mathematician!
When you’re not working what are your hobbies and interests?
I do a lot of fitness stuff, not as much as I used to now I’m getting older! I have to content myself with watching the sports I used to play - cricket and rugby mostly. I like cooking and nice wines and travelling! I’m just learning to sail and want to do more of that.
Assuming you have food and water supplied, if you could take three things to live happily on a dessert island, what would you take?
I would have an infinite memory kindle, with the British library on it as I do a lot of reading. Probably a nice big telescope so I can pick up my astronomy in a place with no light pollution. Then my scuba gear, but only if this is a tropical island as I’m very much a warm water diver.
Who would be your ultimate three dinner party guests?
Richard Feynman, the noble prize-winning physicist a safe breaker and bongo player. He is one of the smartest guys of the 20th Century and a bit quirky, and I’m sure he would make an exciting dinner guest. I’d have to find a thought-provoking politician, maybe Nelson Mandela, someone who has changed the world of politics. Then maybe Bill Bryson, someone who has interesting stuff to say on a whole range of different topics.
You can find out more about Immense and our exciting new beta launch here.