Intelligent network to transform UK roads

Posted on 15 Dec 2017 by Jonny Williamson

Highways England has outlined a vision of the future, one in which an intelligent network coupled with connected vehicles could improve how efficiently roads are maintained and at the same time improve safety.

Intelligent Network - Technology will play an increasingly major role in keeping people moving, and the country connected - image courtesy of Highways England.
Technology will play an increasingly major role in keeping people moving, and the country connected – image courtesy of Highways England.

In its Strategic Road Network Initial Report, published this week (13 December 2017), Highways England says that technology will play an increasingly major role in keeping people moving, and the country connected.

It also stresses the importance of keeping existing roads properly maintained, and that it does so in a way which minimises disruption to road users and local communities. The report is intended to help inform the government’s next road investment strategy which begins in 2020.

The Initial Report outlines eight aspirations for the next road period – though currently lacks details regarding the practical implications of their adoption:

  • focus on operations, maintenance and renewals
  • build the smart motorway spine of the network
  • roll out expressways
  • undertake transformational investments
  • deliver a balanced programme
  • renew focus on small schemes
  • deliver through refined designated funds
  • prepare for the future

Highways England chief executive, Jim O’Sullivan commented: “We are delivering a record £15bn of government investment to give people safe, efficient and reliable journeys, and provide businesses with the links they need to prosper and grow.

O’Sullivan encourages people to read the new report and feedback through the Department for Transport’s consultation into Highways England’s Initial Report, which is also launched today and runs until Wednesday, 7 February 2018.

Autonomous Robots Drone UAV Multicopter Aerial View Camera Remote Inspection – image courtesy of Pixabay.
In another development, drones could also be used to fly overhead and report back on incidents, improving response times – image courtesy of Pixabay.

The results of it will be used by the department to help develop the next Road Investment Strategy which the government is expected to publish in 2019. It is then that detail on specific road projects will be outlined.

Head of Transport and Manufacturing at the Institution of Mechanical Engineers (IMechE), Philippa Oldham explained: “The way in which we travel is changing, so influencing demand for journeys is one of the most sustainable forms of transport planning.

“Highways England rightly identifies that we need to invest in our roads against a backdrop of increasing demand, but fails to consider how to harness technology to avoid unnecessary travel and, in particular, avoid travelling during the morning and evening peaks.

“A transport network that is over-burdened at peak hours and relatively quiet for much of the rest of the day is an inherently inefficient system. In a time of mass digitisation, our transport network has an opportunity to use these tools to improve the efficiency, robustness and design of our roads.

“Such information could then be used to prioritise investment schemes in a logical, evidence-based way that could then influence urban planning, addressing bottlenecks and areas of vulnerability.

Russell Goodenough, client managing director, transport sector, at Fujitsu UK & Ireland, said: “Making smart motorways the new norm will help us determine how autonomous vehicles fit into our existing transport infrastructure.

“This, of course, will also help shape the public’s understanding of connected and driverless cars, which is paramount if we want to see these hit our roads. Fujitsu’s own research showed that as of today, 41% of people would be uncomfortable being picked up by a driverless car, and less than 20% would be happy to put their child in one alone.

“However, we can persuade the public by demonstrating the benefits smart motorways and connected cars have. For example, by incorporating fibre-optic cables in motorways, messages can be transmitted to dashboards to improve road efficiency.

“As such, it’s positive to see Highways England and private companies align their goals to educate the UK public on the technology, and how it can improve road safety.”

A government-owned company, Highways England is responsible for the operation, maintenance and improvement of the motorways and trunk roads in England. Since it was created in 2015, it has completed 18 major road improvements and has a further 15 currently in construction.