Motorway Evolution

How will technology contribute to changes on our motorways?

“In preparation for the COP26 – Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, I felt it appropriate to explore some of the issues which surround transport on our inter-urban highways, specifically motorways and dual-carriageways, and the way in which Intelligent Transport Systems (ITS) might help to diminish the impact that the transportation of people and goods has on the environment.

image of a bicycle

Over the course of the last year or so, the importance of de-carbonising our lives has been highlighted by the increasing number of disruptive natural events which have occurred across the planet whilst set against the backdrop of the upheaval caused by the global pandemic which continues to beset us. Many feel that Covid19 provided an opportunity to reflect on our lifestyles and has been the catalyst for many to want to make significant changes to their daily lives and reduce our impact on the environment generally.

In recent months, we have also seen that the transition from vehicles powered with Internal Combustion Engines (ICE) using petrol or diesel to Battery Electric Vehicles (BEV) has undoubtedly been accelerated as a consequence of the vast reduction in vehicle sales figures during the Covid 19 pandemic. As a result, vehicle manufacturers were left with stark decisions to make about overhead costs and future investment strategies. Because of this, the transition to BEVs has now started at scale, although the time it will take to reach a significant proportion of the vehicle fleet will still largely be dependent on government incentives and policy decisions. However, although BEVs and competing technologies such as Hydrogen will provide an increasing reduction in vehicle emissions and a commensurate improvement to air quality, the road infrastructure itself will also need to adapt to reduce the embodied carbon of the highway and supporting infrastructure.

There are a range of views for how our highways will look and operate in the future, but it is clear that there is a consensus about the increasing reliance on technology to maximise the efficiency and safety of our roads. To illustrate this, National Highways, who are the body responsible for motorways and trunk roads across the strategic road network in England, have recently published their “Digital Highways” vision for the way in which they envision these major roads to develop over the coming decades. Another government body, Innovate UK has recently published their “UK Transport Vision 2050” which sets out their view of transportation generally over the next 30 years, including developments for road transport. This sets out their vision for how technology will develop and be adopted over this period of time.

There has been a huge amount of publicity over recent years about autonomous cars and how these will revolutionise our lives. It is also thought, that because of the predictable driving behaviour of these types of vehicles, it will be possible to dramatically increase the density of vehicles on the highway. This could lead to the possibility of decreasing the number of lanes used for vehicular traffic, allowing space to be used for other purposes including long-range active transport corridors, linear solar farms or to increase the planting of trees and shrubs.

image of mixed traffic on a bridge

However, a critical enabling factor at this point is connectivity between vehicles and roadside infrastructure in particular, commonly referred to as Vehicle to Infrastructure (V2I) communications. This will allow data to be exchanged between vehicles and the network which can then allow a vast range of information to be provided. Once a significant proportion of vehicles are equipped with this type of facility, the quality of data available to network operators and travellers will significantly improve. This is because each vehicle will effectively be a sophisticated data acquisition platform, which will have capabilities to not only report on parameters such as journey durations, but also exact locations of incidents or even changes to the road network itself. This type of information will later apprise autonomous vehicles about an array of issues, ranging from real-time updates for navigation systems through to warnings of incidents or road defects. The data will therefore provide these autonomous systems with the ability to make more informed decisions rather than being mostly reactive in operational terms.

The presence of this information within vehicles and the ongoing transition to autonomous vehicles will result in much of the existing roadside infrastructure becoming obsolete and no longer required. Items such as road signs and traditional ‘heavy’ ITS infrastructure, including Variable Message Signs, Lane Indicators and Enforcement Systems are all likely to be removed over this period. The requirement for the large-scale structures and foundations associated with this equipment will also be removed, leading to a huge reduction in materials and effort required to construct and maintain these facilities. This will not only have a major impact on the way in which these roads appear but will also reduce the need to clear vegetation within the visibility splays of these items, leading to an increase in bio-diversity.

To operate effectively across the whole road network, V2I and other emerging technologies will inevitably require additional technology assets to be installed to provide this comprehensive coverage. However, it is thought that much of this will consist of deploying communications facilities and the use of increasing numbers of simple sensors to provide diverse information on not only traffic flow, but also environmental and condition monitoring for structures like bridges and tunnels.

It will be important though not to invest in the provision of heavy engineering solutions for aspects of this transition period which could become superseded in a relatively short period of time. As an example, this could include aspects of charging infrastructure for BEVs, particularly HGVs, where infrastructure investment could be overtaken by advances in battery technologies which dramatically extend range capabilities, the wider adoption than initially anticipated of competing technologies such as hydrogen or the development of new materials such as conductive concrete, which could radically simplify the equipment needed to install wireless charging for vehicles. It is important therefore to keep an open mind about how facilities should be implemented, to ensure that abortive or short-term infrastructure deployments are avoided wherever possible.

image of pedestrians