Road congestion charging could be just the start as cars take over from their drivers

A future in which cars communicate with roadside units to help ease congestion, control individuals' driving habits, catch criminals and ultimately open the way to cars without drivers has emerged from a BCS debate.

A future in which cars communicate with roadside units to help ease congestion, control individuals' driving habits, catch criminals and ultimately open the way to cars without drivers has emerged from a BCS debate.

The technology for such a future is already here, said participants at the event, sponsored by the Department of Trade & Industry and held under a rule of anonymity.

There are far too many cars on the roads in the UK, speakers said. There has been a 50% increase in the number of cars over the past 30 years and projections show another 50% growth during the next 15 to 20 years.

The impact of petrol-driven vehicles on pollution and climate change must also be considered. We need to know a lot more about the road network and individual vehicles and drivers.

An intelligent transport infrastructure will provide an opportunity to manage the traffic network better, easing congestion and improving quality of life. It will be able to know the location of every vehicle and how it is contributing to congestion and pollution.

Relatively cheap technology for an intelligent transport infrastructure exists already. This includes inductive loops that measure traffic flow and detect potential road incidents, sensors that detect pollution, in-car navigation systems, global positioning systems to track vehicles, the emerging Galileo satellite navigation system, simple electronic tags communicating with transponders, and intelligent CCTV that can analyse pictures.

The infrastructure is likely to evolve through increased use of equipment in vehicles for navigation and road use charging. If vehicles are equipped with intelligence and interact with the roadside, there is wide potential: charging could be based on distance, vehicle size, propulsion system, pollution, journey purpose or congestion levels.

In addition there is potential for the vehicle to communicate with the driver, providing information about road conditions. 

But there is an issue of control and choice here: should drivers be given information and left to decide what to do, or should they be told what to do?

Both approaches are needed. In general, of course, people can decide for themselves but in an emergency, such as the London bombings, they need to be told what to do or where to go.

The potential for radical thinking is exemplified by traffic lights. They are an old-fashioned means of communication. Today's technology could replace them with an in-car display that tells the driver what to do and stops the car if the instruction is ignored. This is just one example of the system monitoring individuals' behaviour and intervening if it deems it to be necessary. Speed cameras could be used in a similar way.

Such control opens the prospect of all vehicles being driven automatically. People could call for a car when needed, instead of owning their own.

The gathering of information on individuals and their movements raises privacy issues. The system would know where every vehicle was, its speed, and whether it was breaking the law.  Of course, anyone concerned about privacy should be aware that mobile phone services can already track people's locations.

Would the system be able to match human intelligence in making decisions according to context? Could a driver take personal control and override the system's predilection for safety - for example, to accelerate away from a hazardous situation?

Would people give up their cars for better public transport with better information or for automatic communal cars that could be called for when needed? People do change when faced with new threats and opportunities. For example, they might think twice about face-to-face business meetings if the meetings were costed properly and that cost was taken out of people's budgets.

There are real challenges - and opportunities - over the purpose, individual applications, structure and technology of an intelligent transport infrastructure and new thinking about the potential of telecoms.


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