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The digital road ahead: National Highways puts technology in the driving seat

We speak to National Highways about its multi-year plan to tech-enable the management and operations of our motorways

National Highways recently unveiled a multi-year strategy focused on the idea of “digital roads”, where data, technology, and connectivity are used to improve the way the Strategic Road Network (SRN) is designed, built, operated and used. National Highways said this will enable safer journeys, faster delivery and an enhanced customer experience for all.

Elliot Shaw, executive director of strategy and planning at Highways England, and a co-author of the agency’s Introduction to digital roads paper, defines the customer as anyone impacted by the roads. Its customers include road users, cyclists, pedestrians and the communities that live by the roads managed by National Highways.

“Many will be drivers, freight organisations and non-motorised users and pedestrians,” he said. “Everything we do should have an impact on customers.”

Upgrading roads also needs to take into account biodiversity. “Local habitats are really important to make sure there is no net loss in terms of biodiversity,” said Shaw. This means that groups involved in nature and wildlife are also part of the customer base.

The way people use roads is evolving and vehicles are becoming smarter. “Rarely do people set off on a long journey without using Waze [GPS navigation],” he said.

Beyond supporting route planning, he said National Highways is also looking at direct digital interaction with customers. “We are preparing for a world where more vehicles are connected and autonomous,” said Shaw. “How can we provide better information to customers that is more tailored?”

As vehicle connectivity is expanded, he sees opportunities for two-way connectivity. In effect, through the internet of things (IoT), cars will be able to provide feedback to the agency on the state of the road surface.

Connected roads

Smooth operations of the network through the use of digital operations should have a beneficial impact on customers. Shaw believes there are opportunities to make the data available to National Highways work in a more integrated way with the infrastructure.

For instance, the A2/M2 Connected Vehicle Corridor trial in 2018 created a “Wi-Fi road”, which connected vehicles and infrastructure wirelessly, giving drivers advanced access to road closures or congestion warnings. By providing drivers and fleet managers with the information and tools to make real-time decisions, it is possible not only to improve traffic flow but also safety, by informing drivers about traffic conditions ahead. 

Road construction in the digital age

Shaw said that over the past two to three years there has been a shift in digital design and construction. Digital simulations enable planners to optimise the movement of plant machinery around a construction site, avoiding queueing. Bridge lifts are also simulated, which Shaw said is used to reduce the time roads need to be closed. He also believes there are plenty of opportunities to share data to enable rapid road construction.

However, Shaw also acknowledges that is going to be challenging since several organisations are usually involved in construction and operations, which creates problems with moving data from system to system. While some datasets may be online, others will be drawings.

The agency wants to make more use of digital twins and digitally enabled design. Its goal is to implement scheme designs and long-term planning based on fit-for-purpose data and enabled by digital tools. National Highways aims to integrate digitised design requirements, existing data feeds, digital design tools and digital twins, to enable what it describes as “safer, more efficient and greener outcomes”.

Connected and autonomous machinery, such as diggers and lorries, is also part of the agency’s roadmap. “We are trying to get them more connected and ultimately autonomous,” said Shaw.

Read more about road digitisation

  • Covid-19 showed why greater data granularity is key, with Transport for West Midlands turning to geospatial data to understand demand for services.
  • As transportation IoT networks improve with connectivity, embedded processing and sensing technology, society will move from point A to point B more efficiently and safely.

For instance, last year, Highway Care’s Falcon Automated Cone Laying Machine completed 220 km of live lane trials, laying 57,000 cones on the M4. Shaw said that semi-autonomous vehicles offer many safety benefits, and that drones can be used for maintenance and surveys. “They are useful for asset maintenance, and even operations,” he said. “Previously, someone had to climb up a bridge, but you have got to be careful when drones fly over the road network.”

According to Shaw, there has been an explosion of data now available to the operations team managing the road network. For instance, data from the Waze app, combined with tweets and mobile network data, is being used to understand how much road traffic is heading into Manchester.

With this information, Shaw said: “We can optimise flow to the city centre. The ability to collect data from roads and signage will support more AI-enabled predictive capabilities to support operations. Lots more data allows us to be sharper and more informed.”

This operational intelligence will enable National Highways to improve its understanding of the assets it manages. “What we want to see is new operational systems that can pull in more data,” he said.

This would not only inform the operations team of how well the road network is running, but could also be used to set signals that automatically optimise traffic flow.

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