Electric avenues

The UK is holding several trials of technology to alleviate traffic congestion. Some suggest that if the systems are implemented our roads could be a model for the world to follow.

It’s an issue that affects nearly all of us, yet it barely featured in the various election campaigns: with average journey times getting slower and slower, the UK’s motorway network is grinding to a halt.

This isn’t just frustrating for those of us who use it every day, it’s a problem with potentially high economic costs. According to claims by motoring pressure group the RAC Foundation, congestion currently costs transport users and operators at least £15bn a year — and this figure could double in the next decade. So what can be done to reverse the situation?

Fortunately, amid the clamour for more roads, an increasingly vocal group of planners, engineers and academics is proposing a range of more thoughtful solutions. They claim that technology can make a real contribution to reducing congestion at a fraction of the cost of road-building programmes.

This is not just idle techno-banter either. It is happening, now, quietly and without fanfare turning the UK into a global centre of excellence for road technology.

Perhaps the highest-profile example of this approach is the Active Traffic Management (ATM) project, a pilot initiative introduced by the Highways Agency (HA) on a notoriously busy, accident-prone stretch of West Midlands motorway. In this project, the HA is phasing in a range of technologies, both old and new, aimed at smoothing traffic flow on a 17km section of road between junctions 3a and 7 on the M42.

Project leader David Grant told The Engineer, ‘This pilot is by far the most sophisticated package of measures to monitor and direct traffic carried out anywhere in the world.’

He also pointed out that while ATM will be around £100m, the cost for widening the same stretch of the M42 by one lane would be around £450m.

At the heart of the system is a technology known as MIDAS (Motorway Incident Detection Automated Signalling). This uses inductive magnetic detection loops embedded in the road surface which work alongside a dense network of cameras to monitor traffic flow. The information is fed into a computerised system that works out the optimum speed to keep the traffic flowing, and relays this data back to the driver through a series of new advanced variable message signs, which, according to Grant are ‘optically the best in the world’.

The HA is currently running the system with advisory speed limits. The next phase is to make these speed limits mandatory. But perhaps the most significant change will be the use of the system to enable controlled use of the hard shoulder as an extra lane during traffic accidents or heavy periods of congestion.

By doing this, the HA is effectively taking on greater responsibility for what happens on its roads. According to the project’s safety planner, James Catmur, safety issues, always to the fore, have been given an unprecedented level of importance on this project.

‘We will be telling people to change lanes — if the system isn’t right we could potentially deviate them into an unsafe state,’ he said.

One of the keys to developing a system that works safely is making sure that the signalling is clearly understood — with safety planning drilled down to the tiniest detail, even commissioning a series of trials, to see what kind of signs drivers feel most comfortable with. These trials, conducted on an advanced driving simulator at the Bracknell headquarters of the Transport Research Laboratory (TRL), helped the team to determine that the use of a red X to indicate a closed lane inspired the highest level of confidence in road users.

The system is expected to be fully operational by early 2007. Until then it’s going to be tricky to quantify  ATM’s advantages, but Grant said that anecdotal evidence suggests that the scheme is working. The system has certainly already been put through its paces.

‘We switched it on on 16 December and the following day at lunchtime a major load went over. The system operated immediately and potentially saved lives by preventing people from hitting the back of the queue — so I felt fully vindicated,’ said Grant.

Assuming the project generates the results that Grant’s team expects, he anticipates ATM being rolled out across other areas of the road network. ‘It’s not the panacea to congestion but it will have its place — several hundred kilometres of motorway could benefit from this kind of technique,’ he said.

And it’s not just UK roads that stand to benefit. ATM has generated a great deal of international interest, with groups from Canada, Australia, Japan and the US keeping a close eye on what Grant suggests is almost viewed as a global centre of excellence.

‘This is something that’s very much on the world stage, it’s great kudos for the UK and for the Highways Agency,’ he said. But the HA is not without its critics. There are some in the industry who believe that it’s not adventurous enough, and that this world leading position could quickly be lost if new technology is not rolled out more rapidly.

Prof Phil Blythe, director of the Transport Operations Research Group at the University of Newcastle, regularly advises the government on transport policy and shares Grant’s view of the UK as a powerful force. But he warned that the HA may not be acting rapidly enough: ‘Current projects are not ambitious enough — they could push the envelope a bit further. The HA was criticised last year in the National Audit report for not being innovative enough and I would say that’s a fair reflection,’ he said.

Blythe is a passionate advocate of traffic management technology and believes that improvements made in communications and computing over the past five or six years could see a range of highly advanced technologies coming on to our roads sooner rather than later.

While current systems, such as ATM, rely on road-based technology, he pointed to the potential of on-board telematics for managing traffic flow and improving safety.

‘In the future if your vehicle has a crash, it will send a message back to a local traffic management centre saying “I’ve been in an accident — this is the location from my GPS unit, come and get me.” It could make a significant difference to saving people’s lives.’

The big stumbling block to on-board traffic management is getting everyone, including automotive manufacturers and the various regulatory bodies, to agree on standards for a truly interoperable on-board system. But this obstacle is not insurmountable. Blythe believes that the impetus will come from the growing number of road user charging schemes.

‘For these schemes you need a system that is interoperable across a range of different systems. If you can get that interoperability for road user charging applications you’ve got the communications link, you’ve got the intelligence in the car and you’ve got an infrastructure that’s paying for itself through the charges that it’s collecting. Charging gives a business case in a way that many of the other applications don’t because it generates a revenue stream,’ he said.

Blythe is hopeful that further into the future up-and-coming technologies could place an even greater burden of responsibility on the road operator. ‘Many of the esoteric and almost wacky technologies that were a dream a few years ago — such as parking guidance, or stay-in lane-technology — are beginning to happen. Although they are in a sense advisory, in the future there will be a choice to have them interfere more,’ he said.

He pointed to the development of so-called ‘roadtrains’, where vehicles will be able to join a high-speed ‘train’ of vehicles with the distance between cars controlled by front and rear radar systems. Back to the present, and ATM isn’t the only UK project that looks promising. Blythe believes the growing number of regional traffic control centres is potentially more significant than ATM.

‘These control centres have knowledge of all motorway and road networks in a particular area. They can rapidly deal with incidents, and because they have a really wide regional view they can run simulations about the impact of road closures over an extensive area.’

Elsewhere, researchers are looking at alleviating the causes of congestion. The West Midlands police will next month begin trialling a range of technologies, including laser scanners, that could speed up accident investigation and thus help get roads moving more quickly after major accidents.

Engineers at the Transport Research Laboratory, which is heading these trials, are also looking into other technology that could help keep traffic around an accident scene moving.

Iwan Parry, TRL’s principal accident investigator, revealed that his group is investigating the development of screens that could be rapidly erected around an accident site to reduce the ‘rubbernecking’ effect, where drivers routinely slow down to see what has happened.

Further north, on a 3km westbound stretch of the M8 between Edinburgh and Glasgow, the Scottish Executive is evaluating the use of intelligent road studs that can both monitor traffic flow and potentially improve safety. Switched on this March, the intelligent road stud system, installed by engineering consultants Faber Maunsell, consists of a series of detector studs placed at 500m intervals, with hard-wired LED studs at 18m intervals.

The studs use an infrared beam to record information on speed and traffic flow that is fed back to roadside control cabinets.

Linda O’Connor, a senior consultant on the project, explained how the system operates. ‘As soon as fog, mist, or spray are detected or the speed of traffic falls below a preset limit due to heavy traffic or an accident, a signal is sent to the hard-wired road studs to increase their brightness and if necessary begin flashing. When poor visibility is detected by fog equipment the system is immediately activated along the whole stretch and lights up the road.’

Faber Maunsell is now in the middle of a six-month evaluation period, with a final report due out in October. Early signs are that drivers are slowing down when they approach the studs, and if the trials are successful the Scottish Executive will go on to develop the system further, said O’Connor.

Further down the line the system could also be used for speed enforcement, she claimed. In fact, on the same stretch of road, but independently of the Scottish Executive, IRS manufacturer Astucia has installed camera-equipped studs capable of reading number plates. This could be used alongside the rest of the system to log the number of any speeding vehicles.

It’s perhaps ironic that at a time when the UK transport system is under such pressure, the UK road technology industry is so full of optimism. Certainly, despite divergent views about where the technology should be going there appears to be a consensus that the UK currently leads the way.

But this optimism has to be tempered with a warning, according to Newcastle University’s Prof Blythe: ‘The UK is leader in the thinking and research into intelligent transport systems (ITS), and also has companies that actually make things, an industry, in the ITS field. But the Department for Transport really needs to review what’s out there and make some decision on which way it wants to go with these systems. You don’t have to lose out for very long before you’re playing catch-up.’

In the more immediate future, with most of the current projects yet to yield solid data, we must wait a little longer to find out how significant an impact they’ll have on our journey times.