Kevin Borras talks to Keith McCabe, a stalwart of the UK’s ITS sector for longer than he’d care to remember, about his fairly untypical entry into the industry in which he has made his name. The founder of KAM Futures tells Thinking Highways about his 40 years at the forefront of transport innovation

“To start with I couldn’t allow you to get away with a slur on the school I went to! I went to a really good school in Birmingham called George Dixon Grammar – the creator of the long-running BBC television programme Dixon of Dock Green was another former pupil there and he named the lead character after the school.”

So by way of an apology, let me begin by explaining how I came to insult Keith’s alma mater. I was complimenting the former principal consultant of Atkins on his achievements, his career in transport spanning five decades being notable enough without the added ingredient of it all being accomplished without the university education one might readily expect of someone whose list of current roles makes for impressive reading: Managing Director, KAM Futures; Chair, ITS UK Carbon Working Group; Honorary Secretary, ITS UK Smart Environment Interest Group; Chair, The North West Joint Institutions Group;  Member of the Transportation Research Board’s Regional Transport Systems Management and Operations Committee; Technical Director, SatSafe; Chair, Institute of Engineering & Technology’s Manchester Network. Somewhere among what must be a never ending cycle of committee meetings and technical workshops, McCabe is also leading an Innovate UK-funded project called EFES (the Ebbs and Flows of Energy Systems), essentially a feasibility study involving virtual power stations, smart grids and electric vehicles.

As someone who has also managed to make a living in the ITS world for the past 18 years without the benefit of a university education I thought it prudent to at least bring our similar backgrounds up but I clearly didn’t do it in a subtle enough fashion. Part two of my intended opening gambit was to ask the 56-year old how he came to choose a career in transport in the first place. And, naturally enough, it turns out that he didn’t.

“In the 1970s when I started work you were given a slightly different choice to what people are given today, in the UK anyway. You could either go to sixth form and then on to University, or at 16 you could go to work and I chose the latter option so I became an apprentice telecommunications engineer with a company called Plessey, who at the time I think were one of the larger companies in the technology industry and employed maybe upwards of 50,000 people in the UK,” he remembers fondly. “Plessey no longer exists but through those four years of an apprenticeship I think it gave me a good grounding on how things work, how to make stuff and how to take things from being an idea to being created. They gave you an all-round perspective as an apprentice – it wasn’t that long before I was actually installing telephone exchanges so it was very much an eye opener to the technology industry as a whole.  The first telephone exchange I did took 100 people nearly 18 months to install and the last one I did, in Hull, which was the first of the digital telephone exchanges called System X, took five of us six weeks. The rate of progress was incredible.”

This was the point where the seeds of McCabe’s interest in transport were sown. “When I was looking at telecoms as an industry I thought, it’s an industry that’s always going to be important but it was going from being very much a labour intensive installation industry to being one that you very much just plug it in and leave it, so at that point I thought why don’t I put those skills into something else and moved from the telecoms industry into the transport industry with Plessey Traffic Controls which I think later was taken over by Siemens to become Siemens Traffic Control, but with that I employed the skills I had learned as an apprentice of how to build things and fix things to maintain some of the traffic control systems in the South East of England.”  Now Keith McCabe “had” transport; transport “had” Keith McCabe. It was a partnership that would still be going strong in 2016.

“From starting and getting a grounding and working on a motorway to try and fix a traffic control system I was approached by what was then a small company in the transport sector called Serco. They were trying to get some managed contracts and they took me on to manage the Blackwall Tunnel in London, a contract they took from the local authority.  Back then this was a new way of working where you maintain other people’s equipment rather than just the equipment you make yourselves, which meant you had to read stuff and understand it and one of my experiences was to try and maintain the control the systems for a London Underground train and the test equipment for the tube train would be the only method I could use to try and understand it was a pile of manuals and a load of broken equipment so I had to sit there for days trying to work out how to fix it,” he reminisces.

“I think the apprenticeship was still standing me in good stead, but then working for a company that designed, installed and maintained stuff was also good because you got a sense of how you would do things from conception through to completion. From that point I was then approached by a consultancy firm to try and take the next step on which was to start the thought process of how you would install stuff – this was for a company called W S Atkins [now Atkins] and this took me more to the front end of things – I led a lot of Atkins’ research and development for quite a while.”

If there’s one technological sphere that Keith McCabe is synonymous with, I suggested, it’s ramp metering. If everyone has their label, the one product or scheme or innovation that has their name on it, so to speak, then ramp metering would be his. I half expected him to disagree.

“No, that’s fair. I managed the UK ramp metering pilot and I think the most successful thing about that pilot wasn’t just that it proved where we should install ramp metering in the UK, it also proved where we shouldn’t install it,” he says with entirely justifiable pride.

“We managed to have a number of sites, some of which were you would implement it and some of which were you wouldn’t, so it was one of the few pilot programmes that could actually give an indication of what the criteria were to make it economically viable, because we had some places where is wasn’t economically viable. Not only was it a success technically but also economically,” he adds, “and I think it’s employed in over 100 sites around the country, so I think you could call that widespread deployment. I had a very good team of people who are now doing a whole range of very good jobs across the industry, which is what happens when you get a successful project.”

By sheer coincidence as we are talking Keith receives an email from the US asking him for advice on a ramp metering project.

“I think the skill I picked up on that original project was the ability to work out not just how to do things but why we do them. In the mid-1990s I did a degree in economics and geography which was very much about the ‘why’: why things are the way they are, why cities are created the way they are and what model you would need to try and understand them. So one of the reasons I’m involved in stuff in the US is they took an interest back in the late ‘90s early 2000s in active traffic management and I’d had some involvement in some of the development of active traffic management and some of the algorithms around it, but my main involvement was understanding why you would do it and where you would put it in particular places,” he explains carefully. “One of the things I do at the moment through my work in the US and one of the positions I have on the Transport Research Board is to try and make sure that when you install something like active traffic management, it’s done right and it’s done in the best place to get the biggest benefit and really trying to turn it from a discussion around how much does it cost, to why you would do it and what benefit you create in doing something. I find that once someone gets insight into that it makes it so much easier to try and advise people on why you should do something in the first place.”

In 2002 I was in Gothenburg, Sweden and got into a discussion about how no one solution can be relevant to everyone’s problems. Something that could work in Shanghai or Mexico City would probably not be appropriate, or even necessary, in a city such as Gothenburg. As a case in point the city of Gothenburg were considering bringing in measures to alleviate traffic congestion which largely centred around the times that Volvo employees drove in and out of their company’s HQ on the outskirts of the city. For someone living in South London the congestion levels between 0845 and 0900 and 1700 and 1715 were something to be envious of but for the people of Gothenburg it was something of vital importance; a problem that needed addressing. Importing a solution from a megacity would have been a fabulous example of using a sledgehammer to crack a nut.

“When I joined the industry back in the mid-1980s it was starting to be called transport telematics, this is before it was called intelligent transport systems, and I found for about the first decade it was very much an industry where it was a case of ‘We’ve come up with this latest gizmo, so what’s your problem?’. We were inventing solutions without having any idea of whether there was a problem they were applicable to.  I think what we’ve managed to do in the 21st century is try to influence things so your starting point is now ‘What problem do we need to solve?’ then trying to rework the problem or apply something appropriate that might solve it.

“I remember one of the discussions I had with the Department of Transport, I think we were looking at ramp metering and controlled motorways at the same time, was centred around one of the questions they asked which I thought was quite striking at the time, which was why should the government invest in this rather than build a new school or a new hospital? You’re talking about public investment and once you can start to understand the impact things can have on a measure that is universally applicable you can work out not only why you would you apply a particular technology for traffic management but why you would want to invest yourself into a career in a particular industry based on what impact it’s going to have and how big that industry might be in 10 years time.”

During our discussion it became clear that Keith and I had first met in 2000 at the ITS World Congress in Turin, a whole lifetime ago in ITS terms. What, I wondered, was he working on then that was still applicable 16 years later?

“Around 2000 we were doing early research into what ended up becoming the MS4, the variable message sign which I think is now used on most gantries on Highways England’s motorways. It was intriguing at the time because what we had to do was work out how big they should be which, on the face of it, should be straightforward as the standard for text is already set in stone, but when you start looking at you have to think about how actually do people comprehend and process information and how long do they have to do it? We went through a whole process of both laboratory trials and off-road trials to try and work out how big the characters should be or if people could understand those little pictograms or not. You had to do all that before you could answer the question of how big it should be, whereas if you say ‘the text has to be this big and has to be upper case’ it’s fairly straightforward, but once you start trying to play with the boundaries of that you have to make sure it’s comprehensive and effective. That alters the cost and how many VMS you can put in.”

There’s also the argument that the human brain, especially at speed, accepts and understands information much more quickly if it’s presented in a familiar form, ie in a mixture of upper and lower case characters and not solely upper case as the brain processes the shape of words rather than just the individual letters.

“Absolutely,” McCabe concurs. “That’s certainly the case with things like place names. We do recognise place names through the shape of the word rather than necessarily the letters so there is a lot more to it and it also made me realise how little information you can put on a sign for people to comprehend. I remember for a while we experimented with graphical congestion panels and we did some in a lab experiment where we made them really complicated and it was noticeable when you monitored driving behaviour that it was affected by how complicated the sign was, so when you’re trying to display stuff at the side of the road you’ve always got to be conscious of it impinging on how much activity the brain has to perform to understand it and that will then impact on the unconscious activity you’re using to drive, so it’s a fine balance. This is why I think it’s going to be much better when you can relay the messages either directly to the vehicle through machine-to-machine communication or through vehicle to the person in oral form because then you can transmit so much more information and personalise it.”
But would oral warnings be any use for someone who plays loud music in their car, for example? Would the warning have to override the sound system?

“What’s important here is that if you’re trying to warn someone of something and the message is important you’ve got to show it’s important in the form in which it’s presented so there’s a lot of things around the human factors of driver safety that really needs to be taken into account as we move into the world of displaying stuff at the side of the road and displaying stuff in vehicles. So to answer your question, probably yes.”

So, I wondered, why do warnings such as SLOW DOWN, PEDESTRIAN ON CARRIAGEWAY, appear in capital letters on MS4s? Does that no against everything we have just said and, indeed, agreed upon?

“Well, I think one of the issues is you’ve got to have policies about it, if you’re in a public authority you’re making a decision on the policy of what should be displayed you probably take it on a broad context of things and if you’ve got loads of different technologies, some that can display things one way and some another way, you might make a policy on what all of them can display, so there’s always an interaction between a policy that you might change once every decade and the technology that might change once every couple of years,” Keith replies, with more than a hint of personal experience of just that situation. “It’s a balance between getting these things right.  If you could personalise these things you would obviously put them in a form that’s more applicable to you and if you’re multilingual you’d put it in the language you’re most comfortable with.”

Thirty five years into his working life Keith McCabe decided that it was time he went solo and in 2011 he founded KAM Futures, a research and development consultancy based in his adopted home city of Manchester, specialising in the energy, transport and ICT sectors. Two of the more notable projects that KAM Futures have been involved in to date are one in which they were the UK Industry Partner to the EU Cost Project on Autonomic Road Transport Systems and another in which the company provided specialist technical support to CH2M Hill on the deployment of Active Traffic Management in Pennsylvania and New Jersey that included playing a pivotal role in the development of guidance for the Federal Highways Administration (FHWA) on Active Traffic Management Deployment. Not bad going for a particularly S SME based in the north of England.

“When you set up a business you have some key choices and decisions to make, as I am sure you are fully aware. You can either just set it up to do consultancy work and trade on your relationships you’ve had with people before, or you can make new ones. What I chose to do was to think I’ve got a fair bit of insight into how things are going to change so is it possible for me to be involved in some of the stuff to try and drive that change forward and maybe try and work with people and come up with some of that stuff and have some ownership over both how it’s created and ownership over direction and how it is used,” he enthuses. “We’ve got one project where we are looking at the use of electric vehicles (EV) and how they might be used to balance the energy on the grid. The assumption here is that there will be a sharp rise in the number of electric vehicles so we’re trying to turn the tables on the way it’s thought of at the moment, namely that a lot of electric vehicles is going to create a problem for the energy network, because of the amount of energy it draws to charge them up.  What we tried to do is prove technically, operationally and economically that rather than see it as a problem, why not use the EVs as temporary storage for some of the tech that doesn’t produce energy all of the time, for example temporary storage for wind power or solar power and for other forms of generation that are popping up much more regularly at a local level. We have much more distributed power that can be put into the grid when it’s most needed through temporary storage and electric vehicles and it seems as though as a project it’s proven technically. I think what we’ve got to do is pick the moment at which the volume of electric vehicles become sufficient for it to be considered as something that is the norm and see at what point in the future that will happen.

“One of the other things I’ve been working on for a while,” he continues, “is the application of artificial intelligence primarily to the management of cities and in a project we’ve got called SimplifAI we’ve applied artificial intelligence to the operational control of traffic and we’ve had a lot of support from good academics at Huddersfield University and a very forward-looking local authority in Transport fpor Greater Manchester, to try and work out if you did that what you would use it for and what benefits it could bring? It’s sort of chipping away at where does the new stuff come from and how could it be invented and how do you go through that process – at the same time looking internationally: if you invent it here, what other countries might be interested.  So, I think if I was to look back at the plan I had five years ago it’s reasonably on track now, so hopefully another five years and we’ll be able to move it forward even further.”

So just how far away are we from the point where the number of electric vehicles in the UK fleet is significant enough to have that aforementioned effect?
“I think we’re only a couple of years away from being at a point where if you added all of the batteries together in the UK’s electric vehicles and were able to use them as a collective battery source, you would be able to transmit more power than a nuclear power station. If you use them in the right way you could start to make power stations out of them or virtual power plants, so that’s just having the will to do it and the technical mechanisms and levers.  The key question we are looking at the moment is who would do that – in the energy industry it’s rather complex, so working out who the player would be to do that is not easy. It’s fair to say that it’s not crystal clear who that might be yet.”

It’s highly doubtful that the 20 year old Keith McCabe, the one that had recently finished his apprenticeship with Plessey and was living in West London enjoying the finer things that Southall had to offer, could ever have imagined that come 2016 he’d be the chair of the Institute of Engineering and Technology’s Manchester Network.

“It’s strange when I look back, it was in the 1980s that I joined the Society of Electronic and Radio Technicians as an engineering technician and then that organisation became the Institute of Incorporated Engineers and then just after the turn of the century that organisation merged with the Institute of Electrical Engineers to become the Institute of Engineering and Technology (IET).  I see it that I’ve been a member of the IET for about 30 years now, but I think most people when they look at the IET they think of the Institute of Electrical Engineers where as it is an amalgamation of a number of institutes. I’ve become the chair of the Manchester branch of the IET that has over 4000 members, to try and I’m hoping to reflect that because it’s noticeable now that the way I started an engineering career as an apprentice is now coming back into fashion.  I was at the launch of the Rail Engineering College in Widnes last week where Alsthom have invested a significant amount of money, not just in a location to refurbish trains, but to train the next generation of apprentices and graduates. I think a business that is starting now needs to think about how to bring in people at the age of 16, 18, 21 and 45? How do you get people in from different careers and different routes?  I think that model you have referred to, you go to a good school, you go to university and then you start a career and you stick with it, is probably how the minority of people have entered into transport now, the majority of people now move around and having a good grounding in engineering or science or a good apprenticeship.

“I think I’ve now been through four or maybe even five recessions and they teach you how to be aware of changes and challenges, because trying to stay continuously employed for 40 years and going through so many recessions is a real challenge, and I must admit when I set up a business 5 years ago in the depths of the last recession people thought that was slightly mad, but it is those challenges that, if you can come through them, it does add something to you I think. It certainly adds to your character, a layer of armour.”

With his company being ‘internationally facing’, I couldn’t let the avuncular McCabe get away without mention the portmanteau word that has dominated the headlines in the UK’s newspapers in 2016 – Brexit. How does he see Britain’s impending exit from the European Union affecting his business?

“The way I would look at it is that the terms under which Britain exits are probably going to be determined by a combination of the British Government and the EU.  The amount of influence I can have over that is very little, the influence the people in Britain had was over deciding whether or not, the detail is probably very little. I think what you’ve got to do is realise, well it’s got to happen and organisations that have good relationships with non-EU countries, that can work across the world with good ideas are the ones that are going to grow and strengthen. Ones that are entirely reliant on their relationship with one or more European countries probably need to diversify a bit, because if they are good enough to trade with Europe they are probably good enough to trade with other places, they just need to give it a bit of foresight now to try and work through it all.”