Comment: Making the smart motorway smarter

3 min read

While there is no universal remedy to diffuse the smart motorways debate, it’s clear that building a technologically advanced, instantly reactive traffic infrastructure should be top priority, says Jamil Ahmed, Distinguished Engineer at Solace.

The UK Government has delayed progress on all-lane smart motorways for another five years whilst glaring safety concerns are addressed further. Although the thinking behind hard shoulders as a permanent live traffic lane may offer potential benefits, including capacity to drive better traffic movement, it still remains a heated point of controversy.

There are roughly 400 miles of smart motorway already in action, yet 200 miles of these lack a permanent hard shoulder, and 63 miles  intermittently use the hard shoulder as a live running lane. The most recent U-Turn now leaves another 100 miles of all-lane motorways yet to be completed, offering an opportunity for the implementation of a truly technologically advanced smart motorway.

Using the next 5 years wisely

Key safety concerns stem from drivers not being able to react fast enough to detect and move out of lane for broken down vehicles. While some of this can be attributed to human error, there are also technological issues. For example, overhead gantries imbued with legacy detecting technology are unable to pick up on specific incidents in real-time, resulting in the ‘red X signal’ being dangerously delayed or absent, making it impossible for drivers to react accordingly to avoid severe accidents.

One answer is to simply not allow normal traffic to use those lanes, returning to the previous status quo the general public desires. However, this goes against all principles of development and innovation at the heart of the smart motorway rollout. Instead, another option is to only allow specified vehicles to enter that section of the motorway. Critically, these vehicles must contain all requisite technology by way of sensors and automated braking to ensure public safety.

While this strategy ensures a good blend of technological innovation and common sense, the next few years are crucial for the development of a safer smart-motorway strategy. As the world continues to extensively lean on technology, and digital transformation steams ahead in other industries, the long-term development of a solid digital infrastructure to manage traffic flow and motorway capacity should be top priority.

Realising the role of real-time

For lasting smart motorway success, it is paramount that technologies such as ‘stopped vehicle detecting sensors’ are connected seamlessly together with solutions such as ‘Car-to-X Communication’. This can help create a joined-up safety solution, all acting on real-time data for instantaneous results as conditions change. Imagining a smart motorway that can detect a stationary vehicle to automatically broadcast out a warning to the dashboards of oncoming vehicles, whilst simultaneously triggering overhead gantries to show the red X, is all technically feasible today. With this technological capability, drivers can receive information in a more timely manner, enhancing overall visibility of traffic surroundings, and decreasing the possibility of deadly crashes.

Event-driven architecture (EDA) can be the leading light in traffic technologies when making the most of real-time data movement. With EDA, data is transmitted as a series of ‘events’ as they happen in the real-world. A particular product in a stock control system moving from ‘in stock’ to ‘sold out’ would result in an ‘event’ to be created to signal exactly when this happens. Another system could consume that published event to update availability in an online catalogue for example. Enabling a real-time flow of ‘events’, from production to consumption, or detection to reaction, therefore allows for the facilitation of overall versatility and responsiveness in a digital system, all happening in real-time.

In the context of smart motorways, the in-lane sensors for stationary vehicles would create an event to signal that a vehicle was detected. Expected consumers of the event would be the gantries, the traffic control centre, and potentially all nearby vehicles if equipped with the requisite vehicle communication technology. Similarly, once a broken-down vehicle safely leaves the lane, another event could immediately clear the gantry and warnings from the vehicle dashboards. Such responsiveness and minimal duration of seeing the red X can only increase trust with road users for what it represents.

Upgrading the hard shoulder

There are also solutions available from the rapidly developing world of automated vehicles that can be applied to make the hard shoulder safer. Vehicle platooning is an innovation in the automotive industry that aims to improve safety, efficiency, mileage, and time of travel of vehicles while relieving traffic congestion and decreasing pollution.

Platooning looks to translate the efficiencies of rail freight transport, with a single train driver transporting dozens of containers, to the motorway network. This involves trucks driving in a uniform manner, technologically assisted with the likes of radars and magnets to keep the platoon as a tight uniform entity - all that also require the movement of real-time data to monitor the health and integrity of the convoy and the surrounding environment.

With the successful implementation of platooning, criticisms over the hard shoulder may wane, as this lane and its spare capacity could be allowed specifically for this method of transportation. This could bridge the gap between a safe and fast flow of traffic.

Jamil Ahmed, Distinguished Engineer at Solace