Behind schedule

Transport can improve its new technology take-up by learning from more adventurous sectors, says Liz Orme.

Policy makers are increasingly accepting that we cannot build our way out of congestion. However, we need to make changes in key urban areas, inter-urban corridors and international gateways that are becoming congested and unreliable.

Without building new roads, this will force the transport industry to look at the existing network and find innovative solutions, some of which could come from other, more technology-advanced, sectors.

Incident management is perhaps the most significant area for innovation. Although it involves the computerisation of a well understood process, there is enormous scope for technology to help reaction speeds and in stopping the fragile transport network from grinding to a halt.

Variable message signs, seen on many UK motorways, are becoming more credible with drivers as the information becomes more timely and relevant. However, they rely on an operator selecting appropriate messages — it works but is hardly cutting-edge technology.

Some developments are building on the success of these signs, specifically the adoption of more modern technologies to capture real-time traffic flow and average speed information — providing early warnings and a chance to display targeted information.

Other ‘advanced’ technology is now being used, which is positive for the sector. However, radar, light detection and ranging and cameras are mainly used for enforcement, while others are used on a small scale, such as in vehicle identification — namely Dart Tag on the M25 and the ‘bus priority’ project in London, where specific vehicles are recognised and given priority.

The problem is that the transport industry, compared with other sectors, is too conservative in taking up new technologies. This is not surprising because the size of any technology investment is likely to be large and the returns uncertain.

Also, the infrastructure requires inter-operability and common standards, the absence of which cause a significant barrier to take-up. For example, achieving ITSO/Oyster interoperability for travel smartcards across London is a goal that has been pursued for many years.

The need for new technology is stronger than ever as ‘leading-edge’ technologies offer the means to bridge the gap between what our transport system can deliver and what we want it to deliver.

This is not advocating new technologies for their own sake but recognising there is considerable potential for improving journeys for travellers through the targeted application of more leading-edge technologies.

The transport industry can learn from other sectors that have successfully invested in them, through understanding how success was achieved and eliminating much of the risk from integrating proven technology.

Here are some real examples of where technologies from other industries could be applied to great effect in the transport sector:

 -Decision Support is an automated system that takes in large volumes of data and helps the operator make tactical decisions. It has been used successfully in air traffic control, military and trading desk environments. It is especially useful for automating time-consuming, low-level tasks and for offering alternative strategies to an operator dealing with a complex situation, effectively increasing the operator’s attention span.

 – Impulse radar technology is better suited than conventional radar technologies, such as Doppler, to vehicle tracking and profiling applications, for identifying when lane drift has occurred in high-density traffic. This technology has its origins in oil exploration in arctic regions and has been widely adopted by the defence sector and construction industry. As a result, the technology is well proven and uses low-power consumption, lightweight, low-cost, readily available components.

 – The application of localised, dedicated wireless data communications has been developed primarily for the consumer IT market, offering two-way communications with high throughput rates. In the transport industry, technologies such as Dedicated Short Range Communications are geared towards providing a dynamic communications network, ideal for vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure communications. There are many potential applications, for example, electronic signs and signals selectively providing information based on knowledge about the intended journey to the driver via wireless links with in-car satnav systems. Such technologies, with the infrastructure to back office communication links and the back office itself, are also potential enablers of road user charging.

There are many drivers for innovation. The UK’s Highways Agency is keen to explore and exploit new technology to improve journey reliability, suppliers of traffic services are developing new services to help drivers, and legislation from Europe’s eSafety Forum aims to halve road-related deaths by 2010.

With such motivation I believe the transport industry is ripe for faster, smarter more innovative technology that will ease the burden of road use today and provide a system for whatever the 21st century throws at it.

Dr Liz Orme is director of transport at Cambridge Consultants