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Highways England plans for 5G, smart vehicles, drones

Highways England report sets out its aspirations for the next few years, and explores how digital technology will be used to keep people on the move

A report from Highways England has outlined how technology will be brought to bear on England’s strategic road network (SRN), with smart vehicles generating data on road conditions to improve maintenance, while drones patrol the skies to watch out for incidents.

In the Strategic road network initial report, Highways England acknowledged that technology would come to play an increasingly major role in helping to keep traffic on the SRN flowing freely.

The SRN comprises just 4,400 miles, or 2%, of England’s road network, but is used by four million vehicles every day. It includes not only motorways, but also key A-road links such as the A1 between London and Berwick, the A12 in Essex, and the A30 in the West Country.

“We are delivering a record £15bn of government investment to give people safe, efficient and reliable journeys, and provide businesses with the links they need to prosper and grow,” said Highways England chief executive Jim O’Sullivan.

“Because people’s journeys are important to us, we are setting out our high-level aspirations, which will help ensure the network continues to drive economic growth, jobs and prosperity, and keeps traffic moving today, and into the future.”

Technological aspirations

The full report outlines a number of aspirations over the coming years, with a focus on operations and maintenance, smart motorways and expressway (key A-road) upgrades, and proposes a series of “transformational investments” around technology. These include facilitating support for electric vehicles and connected autonomous vehicles (CAVs) and, crucially, building a resilient 5G network spine along the entire length of the SRN.

It is already widely known that the anticipated abilities of 5G to handle much more data and more devices across an ultra-low-latency, reliable network will likely precipitate the mainstreaming of CAVs, but Highways England said it hoped to use enhanced network capabilities to go further still, opening up new data assets that it could not access before.

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For drivers, this could help drive the use of analytics and software for personal travel information, asset inquiry and transport planning. In-car applications, meanwhile, could potentially help collate vast amounts of data for Highways England itself, helping it to become a more effective and infrastructure operator.

If a car could report a pothole itself, for example, it would save the organisation from using resources to carry out preventative inspections. Or if Highways England could send information on road conditions and speed limit variations direct to a vehicle, it might be able to start to remove overhead gantries on the motorway system.

Preparing for self-driving cars

In the nearer term, Highways England is planning to undertake a series of pilot schemes to work on aspects of CAV management, such as vehicle-to-vehicle communications, dynamic lane management and platooning.

“Based on current predictions, by 2050 we expect to run a network of connected, fully autonomous vehicles. This period is therefore likely to see the end of investment in obsolete assets and the introduction of a redefined form of road transport, including dynamic lanes, AI [artificial intelligence] operations, and driverless travel,” the report said. 

“We will also assess and develop our role to ensure that the infrastructure and the way we operate it supports and enables the significant benefits that can be gained from CAV technology.”

The report also highlighted some proposals around how technology will play a bigger role in Highways England’s planning and maintenance operations.

The improved use of analytics, machine learning and so on will offer new insight into the construction of new infrastructure, while advances in materials science are expected to improve the structural properties of road surfaces. It also suggested the use of autonomous drones as spotter aircraft to highlight developing problems and incidents on the SRN.

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