I’m someone who travels frequently for work. From adventures across the Atlantic to long-haul flights to China and beyond, it can feel like I spend most of my time in planes, trains and automobiles.
And whilst I can appreciate nostalgia for the public transport of yesteryear – the golden age of steam locomotives and such – I relish every technological advancement that changes the way we travel.
A feeling of mild dread envelops me every time I see an older electric train trundling down the tracks. You know, the ones where you manually yank the window down and lean through it to open the door from the outside when you wish to disembark. I used to ride one of those slam door trains to school every day where it was common practice to open the door before the train fully stopped and leap out while trying not to fall over. I emit a mirthless chuckle each time I’m stuck behind a Gen Zer – AirPods in ear – looking completely perplexed at the lack of an illuminated button to press.
Give me a Siemens Class 700 Thameslink train any day!
Unveiled in 2016, there have been 115 units built for use on the London Thameslink network with the 12-carriage trains capable of carrying up to 1,750 people – the equivalent of 21 double-decker buses!
Whilst the additional capacity is undoubtedly a welcome feat of commuter-focused design, it is the display screens that set it apart for me. Once aboard, you are greeted by a digital “Train Loading Indicator” – a colour-coded illustrative depiction of the carriages, categorised by “Plenty of Seats”, “Carriage Half Full”, “Standing Room Only” and “Carriage Full”.
The screen flits between the indicator and a service overview for the London Underground, making it invaluable for time-pressured travellers with limited smartphone connectivity or room to breathe.
In a similar vein, I’m sure that the ease of airplane travel will be unrecognisable in the years to come. In fact, there has been speculation for a few years now that microchip implants may one day replace passports altogether.
All modern EU passports have near-field communication (NFC) chips built in which allow for the speedy verification of the passport holder. However, these are far from reliable – mine stopped working after a mere couple of months, leaving me doomed to stand in line waiting for human verification, until I relent and endure the frustratingly slow bureaucracy of applying for a new one, that is!
Back in 2016, Swedish-based tech entrepreneur, Andreas Sjöström, conducted an experiment with Scandinavian Airlines at Arlanda Airport in Stockholm which took the application of this technology to the next level. Following the implantation of a near-field communication (NFC) chip beneath the skin on his hand, Sjöström passed through security, the airport lounge and the gate with minimal fuss and without a traditional boarding pass. The NFC chip contained his Scandinavian Airlines EuroBonus member ID, which was recognised by a series of readers en route to the aircraft.
His video detailing the experiment – complete with footage of the bloody implantation procedure which I wouldn’t recommend for the squeamish – has over 108k views on YouTube. In contrast, his follow-up vlog from December 2017 has only 6.6k views. And yet, it’s the latter that I am by far the most interested in.
Here, Sjöström essentially denounces the very technology that garnered him so much attention two years prior. Entitled “NFC chip implants are a bad idea”, he succinctly outlines the five core reasons why he wouldn’t recommend the adoption of chips for travel purposes:
They solve no real problem
It doesn't work well
Takes more time (compared with using tags not implanted, or in the case of boarding passes - the old kind, paper or device)
Not possible to use the NFC chip for more than one thing at the time (in the majority of solutions)
Serious health risks
In one of my recent blogs, I outlined my prerequisites for technology to be considered genuinely useful and valuable to the user:
I want to know that my life is going to be made easier; that the product [in this case. the NFC chip] can do something better than what I have experienced or done before; that I will save time and effort; that my family will be safer; that I will be healthier or happier; that I’m getting value for money.
It is worthy of note that Sjöström’s list is essentially the antithesis of these criteria. NFC chips are impractical and unnecessary. The smart toasters of the travel sphere, perhaps?
Critics of his original post suggest integrity and privacy concerns are problematic. Sjöström doesn’t think so, however, explaining that such fears are irrational on the basis that NFC chips cannot be remotely monitored or controlled.
Whilst that may be technically true, it does little to allay the ever-increasing paranoia of a population who would likely shudder at the realisation that their much-loved smart devices are always listening in, ready and waiting to respond in the instant that their “name” is uttered. Yet, there’s something about a microchip that is literally under your skin that moves the needle from mild to major mistrust.
And it’s not for the faint of heart.
At the DEF CON Hackers Convention in Las Vegas last year, I saw a lot of delegates having NFC chips implanted. It left me feeling more than a little unwell! So, a firm “no” from me then…
But what of using your actual skin to identify yourself? Biometric technology is already in abundant use every single day – from fingerprint scans to unlock your smartphone to e-Passport gates that replace potentially fallible human interactions with sophisticated recognition systems.
From this summer, passengers travelling from Heathrow Airport will be able to check in and board their flight without showing their passport thanks to a £50 million project to install permanent facial recognition technology – the biggest deployment of biometric technology in the world.
It follows a similar self-boarding trial at Gatwick Airport in partnership with their biggest airline, easyJet. The technology identifies each passenger and verifies that their face, passport and boarding card details match – a process which purportedly takes less than 20 seconds.
The collected data is analysed to assess the impact on queuing times, the nature of passenger interactions and how intuitive the process is, with the intention to roll-out an adapted and improved process airport-wide.
There is little doubt in my mind that transport hubs around the globe will be clamouring to get their hands on similar technology, once a reliable and scalable solution is achieved.
Whilst there is always an inherent risk in relying too heavily on technology – computer hacks or power failures, for instance – there are a lot of positives.
Whilst the British are infamous for their polite queuing etiquette, I’d much rather spend my pre-flight time enjoying brunch or a bevvy than waiting in line.
So, I say, bring on the travel tech! Fingerprint scanners and retina recognition instead of paper passports; a digital wallet for my tickets; signs to guide you to a seat on the train after a busy day of back-to-back meetings – anything but a bloody syringe!