Phil Blythe

Professor Phil Blythe CBE has been teaching at Newcastle University for the past 20 years and is the former Chief Scientific Adviser for the UK Government’s Department of Transport.

Phil is passionate about finding sustainable alternatives to petrol and diesel vehicles. In this picture, he’s enjoying a ride in an electric Porsche (sadly not his own!)

We spoke to Phil about what the future of transport looks like and how cutting-edge research at Newcastle University is informing policy and making a difference.

Hi Phil! Could you tell our alumni readers a bit about you to get started?

I’m Phil Blythe, a Professor of Intelligent Transport Systems at Newcastle University’s School of Engineering. I am a Chartered Engineer, Vice President and Fellow of the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) and was elected Fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering in 2020.

I’ve been teaching at Newcastle University for the past 20 years, but moved to a part-time role in 2015 when I became the Chief Scientific Adviser for the Department of Transport. I held this position until 2021, and so led the restart and recovery work for our transport systems following the COVID-19 pandemic. During my six years with the Department, I was responsible for all science, technology and engineering, horizon scanning to see what future breakthroughs could help us in achieving our objectives.

I work in the space between policy and technology. How can new science, engineering and technology help deliver policy in more effective ways? And how can we identify and nurture new and emerging technology to enable new policies to be delivered (which weren't possible before)?

That must have been a challenging role! How does your current research at Newcastle University tie into all of that?

My current research looks at how technology may evolve to meet the future needs of our country, broadly covering three areas: electromobility and the wider decarbonisation agenda, connected and autonomous vehicles, and smart cities.

The recovery from the pandemic is a big ‘need’ at the moment, obviously. Autonomous – or driverless – vehicles aren’t a futuristic imagining from comic books, they’re a reality, and they can be utilised to help vulnerable groups get out and about when they’re unable to drive themselves, whilst also social distancing as there’s no one else in the car! This technology can also be used for things like delivery services, whether it’s driverless cars or drones, so if we do have to social distance in the future, the country won’t grind to a halt.

At the height of the pandemic, I worked with the Urban Observatory on the Newcastle Helix site to track the behaviour of people on the streets of Newcastle. With their smart city technology, we could see in real-time how many people were out and about, and if they were social distancing while out too. Through the TRACKS project, we also analysed whether the risk of transmission was higher on public transport, using video analytics.

Now I’m back at the University full-time, I’m sinking my teeth into projects to advance decarbonisation of our transport systems – and that doesn’t just mean electric vehicles!

My current research looks at how technology may evolve to meet the future needs of our country, broadly covering three areas: electromobility and the wider decarbonisation agenda, connected and autonomous vehicles, and smart cities.

What do you enjoy most about your role? 

A notable soundbite from our Government is ‘levelling up’. Transport has the power to do that for all communities in the UK. It gives a person a radius of economic opportunity. If transport systems are better and cheaper, then your radius is bigger and life is better: you can travel further for work, get better work, enjoy more social activities. This is the area of research I’m most interested in.

Rural communities, including in nearby Northumberland and County Durham, are often forgotten, and they can face stark transport poverty. Think of the stereotype of a bus to town coming on the third Monday of the month! If we can harness driverless transport, that would reduce the cost of serving rural communities with public transport significantly, and our research shows older populations living rurally would be quite happy to trust the technology! We could also use smart data to tailor each journey that bus takes for the people on it, rather than sticking to a set route when there may not be people who need to get on or off at every stop.

Driverless cars can also help older members of our community maintain their independence for longer, as they can continue ‘driving’ for longer. Transport is a really powerful tool for social mobility and justice, and the way our technology can improve mobility is really exciting. This is something I’m working on with our friends at the National Innovation Centre for Ageing on campus, and the VOICE community.

What are the biggest challenges facing transport technology?

The transport sector is on the naughty step at the moment! 30% of all domestic emissions come from transport sector, so that’s definitely one of the biggest challenges we’re facing.

At COP26, ministers kept repeating that technology could solve all our issues, but we’re way past that. We need to change our behaviour too.

About 10 years ago, the UK had the largest electric vehicle network in Europe and research I led shaped policy around the implementation of electric vehicles. In preparation for the 2030 deadline, I’ve been studying how people use electric vehicles day-to-day. Where and when do they charge them up? How much do they let their battery go down before recharging? These are key issues we need to be thinking about to create the infrastructure needed to encourage people to buy electric.

The transport sector is on the naughty step at the moment! 30% of all domestic emissions come from transport sector, so that’s definitely one of the biggest challenges we’re facing.

The newest Centre of Research Excellence at Newcastle is our Centre for Mobility and Transport – we just launched this month! We’ll be spending a lot of our time exploring behaviour and opinions of alternative transport to inform future policy and infrastructure decisions.

We’re all so keen to push electric vehicles but imagine the size of battery needed to power a freight truck or tractor! I’m keen to see more development into hydrogen-fuelled transport too. I can’t imagine a world where we have electric charging cables above the M1!

And it’s not just about moving people more efficiently – but freight too. I was flabbergasted a few years ago when I was buying a sofa to discover the frame was made in Italy but then shipped to China to be built, before coming back to Newcastle for me! It’s fair to say I didn’t buy it in the end. How can we improve the logistics of freight travel? Urban aviation? Underground freight pipelines?

That’s a lot of challenges to solve! How could donations to Newcastle University help?

Unfortunately, carbon is priced so low by our government and stock markets that research into alternatives isn’t seen as cost-effective, and so not enough funding is available to do the research needed. It's the same with investment into transport solutions for rural areas – more money can be made in urban areas and so the rural communities are left behind!

My students are doing great work in exploring some solutions – like hydrogen-powered planes and inter-city airports to make transport eco-friendlier and more accessible, or driverless buses that use smart data to connect rural communities – and donations can help fund more research degrees like this.

Our engineering hub, the Stephenson Building, was established on campus to house the engineers who rebuilt Britain after World War Two. An even bigger effort is needed now to rebuild after the pandemic and simultaneously to tackle the climate crisis.

£110M has been invested and donated to redevelop the Stephenson and create a new world-leading facility – extending and improving the existing building. We’ll be bringing our students, researchers and businesses together to solve the problems of tomorrow through three research hubs, dedicated to tackling the challenges of digital manufacturing, sustainable propulsion and biomedical engineering. This will hopefully include our driving lab and simulator!

The redevelopment is ongoing, which means there are still lots of opportunities for individuals and organisations to invest and drive forward engineering research. We’d love to hear from you!

[In the Stephenson redevelopment] We’ll be bringing our students, researchers and businesses together to solve the problems of tomorrow through three research hubs, dedicated to tackling the challenges of digital manufacturing, sustainable propulsion and biomedical engineering.

And finally, what are your stand-out moments from your career?

A lot has changed since I launched the UK’s first MSc level module in Intelligent Transport Systems back in 1997, but Newcastle is still the place to be!

Being involved with the Urban Observatory on the Newcastle Helix site has been a real highlight. It is the best example of smart city infrastructure in the UK. Having sensors across the city, monitoring the way our population travels and works can help us create more bespoke and efficient (and sustainable!) choices for the future.

We’ve recently launched a new project with Nissan in Sunderland, trialling driverless vehicles on their site using 5G. That’s a really exciting bit of work which I’m hoping will lead to real innovation in the sector.

It would be remiss to end without mentioning my role as the Chief Scientific Advisor for the Department of Transport, which I was honoured to hold for six years. Only Chris Witty has held a Chief Scientific Advisor role longer than me!

It was a really interesting time to be in position too. As well as being in post during the pandemic and leading on the restart and recovery of nationwide transport systems, I was also in post during the Novichock poisoning in Salisbury of 2018, where we had to pull together an emergency plan of what would happen if the nerve agent got loose on the public transport system. There was also one Christmas which was ruined for me by drones flying too close to Gatwick!


Hear more from Phil in this Newcastle Discover webinar

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