The road ahead

Atkins | 28 Apr 2016 | Comments

Stories about automated vehicles are seldom out of the news these days. But what about the roads themselves? Will roads need to change to make autonomous driving a reality? Or could intelligent vehicles eliminate the need for complex highway infrastructure entirely, making road provision a much simpler business?

Imagine a typical six-lane motorway. Now try to imagine what it would look like if you stripped away all the lane markings, all the barriers and all the signs. What you’d be left with is a blank swathe of tarmac – daunting for the human motorist maybe, but for driverless vehicles, raw road space like this could be the future. Instead of just six lanes, the no-frills motorway would be able to pack in 12 streams or more of self-driving traffic, with vehicles grouped at much higher densities – significantly increasing capacity.

Welcome to the future of roads – or at least one version of it. The idea of free space highways may seem far-fetched, but it highlights the questions now facing governments, infrastructure owners and road industry suppliers. What might a driverless future look like? And how do you make investment decisions about future infrastructure if you don’t know how it’s going to be used?

“At some point in the future, we will have driverless cars,” says Lesley Waud, market director for strategic highways with Atkins in the UK. “What I’m interested in – and what my clients are interested in – is how we get there. How long is it going to take and what are the stages on that journey?”

Change is coming. What’s complicating matters is that nobody really knows what form that change will take or how fast it will happen. “In the US, the roadmap to vehicle automation is often split between two camps of thinking, one projecting incremental change as automation features are gradually introduced by automakers; the other foreseeing revolutionary change driven by technology players and new mobility providers,” says Matt D’Angelo, vice president, Atkins in North America. “For the time being, the infrastructure planner’s point of view will likely need to be highly adaptable and flexible among this uncertainty.”

Exploring new avenues

Technology is already changing the way roads are used. The UK’s 'smart motorways' are an example. These are motorways in which the hard shoulder is no longer reserved for breakdowns but is instead used as an extra lane for traffic. Smart motorways are among the technologies that fall under the banner of Intelligent Transport Systems (ITS) – the name given to applications that make use of information and communication technologies to improve mobility.

Smart motorways rely on active traffic management. Traffic flow data is used to calculate the most appropriate speed for the volume of vehicles on the motorway and a variable speed limit is displayed. This eliminates stop-start cycles, cuts congestion and improves safety.

No matter how compelling the benefits, it takes time to get motorists acclimatised to new ways of using the road – a key consideration in the shift to automated vehicles. Understanding human behaviour is every bit as important as the underlying technology.

“You have to build public confidence,” stresses Waud. “We do a lot of work with human factors people to understand how the solutions we’re developing might be received by road users.”

Similar public acceptance issues have been critical to the operation of priced managed lanes in the US, also known as High Occupancy Toll (HOT) lanes. “As prices are adjusted to manage demand, clear communication with the driver is critical to meet expectations about both the quality and price of the trip,” says D’Angelo.

Atkins is active across the road transport arena. In the UK, it is the lead partner in the Venturer consortium which is trialling autonomous vehicles in Bristol and South Gloucestershire. The firm is also leading the FLOURISH consortium, which was recently awarded a multi-million pound government research grant to develop user-centric autonomous vehicle technology. 

In the Middle East, the company is working extensively on ITS programmes in the United Arab Emirates and has advised Bahrain, Qatar and Kuwait.

“We provide design and operational services for road network control centres and network management. The focus is on enabling a consistent journey time, providing information to road users and improving safety,” explains Ian Machen, associate director, Atkins. “Our highways teams create the geometry for junction design and we create the methodology for the control of these junctions and road networks in terms of CCTV, variable message signs, flow information and signalised junctions.”

Soaring car ownership is fuelling major congestion problems in the Gulf region. In the Emirate of Dubai, for example, the number of cars on the road rose by nearly 30 per cent in the five years to 2013. Traffic snarl-ups are reckoned to cost the Dubai economy more than US$800m per year.

Smarter junctions help to ease the pressure. Dubai has about 500 signalised road junctions – the largest number in the UAE. “The first contract I managed in the region was for Dubai’s Roads & Transport Authority (RTA) to undertake a complete systems review of their control centre,” says Machen. “As part of that contract, we redesigned the way that ITS equipment worked on 17 junctions.”

New detection equipment was installed and intersections reconfigured to optimise performance. The redesigned system promotes “green waving: the ability to group vehicles into platoons and to ensure they hit every junction on green as they move across the city. 

“Since successfully delivering this with the RTA in Dubai, we’ve won a number of repeat contracts to enhance more junctions within the Emirate,” says Machen.

Urban traffic management systems of the sort used in Dubai depend on links between traffic signals, vehicle detectors and the central control system. The most efficient way to make these connections is using optical fibres. But in fast-growing cities, road networks often grow quicker than fibre networks. “You can either wait until the physical networks are available or go wireless,” says Machen. 

Wireless has two main attractions. One is that it reduces disruption – there’s no need to dig up the road. Another is that wireless can be deployed quickly. In the Emirate of Sharjah, which adjoins Dubai, Atkins has advised using a wireless mesh network which means faster ITS delivery.

“Sharjah will be rolling out a fibre network, but it all takes time,” says Machen. “We recommended a wireless mesh network. It allows them to connect their junctions online now and gives us better reliability than 3/4G on its own.”

Roads reimagined 

Technological advances are also opening up new ways of using roads. In France, the government’s ecology and energy minister, Ségolène Royal, recently announced plans to cover 1,000km of road with solar photovoltaic panels – potentially turning highways into linear power stations.

Solar collectors – just a few millimetres (a fraction of an inch) thick and with a gripping surface for traffic – are bonded to the road with no need for digging. One kilometre of adapted road could provide lighting for 5,000 people, the French government says. The product is known as Wattway and was developed by Colas. With more than one million kilometres of road, more than any other European nation, France is well-placed to benefit from such technology.

France’s solar highways underline a new willingness to challenge traditional ideas about road use. In North America, for example, a growing number of cities are adopting “complete streets” programmes to make urban roads accessible for all ages, abilities and modes of travel – not just cars. In the UK, meanwhile, the Atkins-designed diagonal crossing at London’s Oxford Circus has transformed the relationship between pedestrians and traffic.

Roads are evolving. But vehicles are evolving faster. From collision avoidance to parking assistance, modern vehicles incorporate ever-higher levels of automation. And they’re increasingly connected: according to Gartner, 250 million vehicles will have some sort of wireless connection by 2020.

Social trends, as much as technological ones, point the way to a future that is not only driverless, but potentially ownerless as well. The rise of ride-sharing apps such as Uber and Lyft, the growth of personal contract purchase (PCP) and the fact that car ownership is no longer seen as a rite of passage all point to radically different types of road use. These trends are already underpinning the rise of new on-demand transport models such as Mobility-as-a-Service (MaaS).

While automated vehicles are some way off, technology now flooding into vehicles – including sat navs that display real-time traffic information – could have more immediate implications for road infrastructure.

“We rely on roadside signals at the moment,” says Waud. “But we’re going to move to a point where those signals are on the dashboard. That will reduce the need for infrastructure, along with the installation, operation and maintenance costs that go with it.”

The current direction of travel, as far as automation is concerned, remains in the hands of automotive manufacturers rather than governments. “Manufacturers are introducing technology because drivers want it,” notes Waud. “But in the longer term, demand by road network operators could also shape technology in vehicles.”

Governments have so far been content to sit on the fence as far as vehicle automation is concerned. That’s changing. In the US, the Department of Transportation recently announced plans to implement consistent self-driving laws across the country. “Some US states are taking a proactive approach in marketing their facilities and programs to be friendly to manufacturers and mobility innovators, such as the Colorado DOT through their RoadX program,” says D’Angelo. “We envision a shift in relationships and roles between the infrastructure provider and all stakeholders in the mobility value chain.”

Europe, meanwhile, will see the first government mandated in-car technology with eCall – an automatic crash notification system – become compulsory in new cars from 2018.

It’s still too early to judge exactly what impact driverless technology might have on the roadside. Some envisage the use of vehicle-to-infrastructure communications (V2I) to manage traffic while improving safety and reducing emissions. This would mean widespread deployments of dedicated short-range radio infrastructure and a need for new skill sets for infrastructure operators. Others foresee a world in which cars rely entirely on their own sensors. 

Whatever happens, governments and road operators are unlikely to relinquish central supervision – particularly on strategic urban and national networks.

“There’s a security side to this,” emphasises Machen. “If there’s any disruption, connected cars will try to re-route themselves. Network owners need to know what’s going on because this can have a wider impact on the city and the ability to deploy emergency services. It’s about information share.”

Deciding who gets access that information – and how they use it – is likely to prove every bit as challenging as perfecting the driverless technology itself.


For more information on MaaS, you can download our white paper, Journeys of the Future, written by the UK Transportation’s intelligent mobility team at Atkins here.

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