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Future imperfect

“In the distant future, personal transport may become a luxury that we cannot all afford and we will move to a process of hiring vehicles on an ‘as needs’ basis for commuting, leisure, and long distance travel.”


Duncan Matheson

Smart Highways

4 April 2013

As a nation in 2011 we contributed in the order of £32bn in Vehicle Excise Duty (VED) and Fuel Duty, of which some £8bn was spent on roads. The remainder was used to support other Government spending (e.g. health, welfare, education etc.). Motoring taxes therefore represent an important source of income to the UK Exchequer. 

However, the levels of tax obtained from Fuel Duty and VED are expected to decline year on year, due to increased fuel efficiency with more vehicles falling into lower VED emission bands, and an increasing (although still nascent) transition to hybrid and electric vehicles that currently benefit from exemptions and lower ownership and use costs. 

In its attempts to reduce the budget deficit, the UK Government is having to make hard choices between taxation and expenditure. These decisions have short and long-term impacts on the development of the wider economy, its prospects for growth and employment, health, and welfare to name just a few.  Development and maintenance of the road network is not seen as a political priority and as a result our road networks are coming under increasing strain. Council funding for repairing potholes, is seen as insufficient to address the real needs for maintenance  and the Highways Agency has a reduced budget to maintain and develop motorways and trunk roads in England, although some further funding was announced in 2012 .  

The Government has recognised that the current regime is not fit for purpose. Last March the Prime Minister announced an initiative  to investigate alternative ownership and financing options for the motorway and trunk road network.

While the focus of debate has been addressing concerns around the maintenance and physical enhancement of the road network, relatively low priority has been given to making more effective use of existing infrastructure through exploiting Intelligent Transport Systems (ITS). Some have claimed that ITS can double or triple asset utilisation in different transport modes. A more likely scenario is an efficiency gain between 10% and 50%, although even this has tremendous value. 

With challenges to allocate sufficient funds to maintain the asphalt, what are the prospects for making inroads into Smart Highways?

Shared responsibility

In the distant future, personal transport may become a luxury that we cannot all afford and we will move to a process of hiring vehicles on an ‘as needs’ basis for commuting, leisure, and long distance travel. Vehicles will be rented by the journey, or the hour, to meet specific needs reducing user costs and the needs for parking through shared use. City Car Club, Greenwheels and Zipcar are examples already offering such services in the UK.   

In the medium term we will have to move to some form of multiple-network travel environment.  Here vehicles will be equipped with a range of technologies to support interactions with other vehicles (V2V) and roadside infrastructure (V2I).  These will facilitate services that deliver advanced warning to drivers, provide greater situational awareness, enable more effective use of the network (such as ‘vehicle trains’ on motorways), permit autonomous driving in the longer term, and provide support to safety services such as eCall.  Collectively these may facilitate compressing more vehicles into less road space safely whilst also enabling more effective network management.  However time and money will be required to provide them.

Such systems could only become operational when the proportion of equipped vehicles achieves ‘critical mass’ – where V2I and V2V applications really begin to make sense. And these systems will need to accommodate the remnant of older technology vehicles (including ‘classic cars’) that cannot support, or be upgraded to take advantage of, such new techniques and services.  

Equipping vehicles alone not only takes time, but needs to be complemented by roadside deployment of systems that can help to provide the services that will make journeys more predictable and safer, reduce fuel use, and deliver other benefits. This means making strategic decisions on infrastructure investment which seem increasingly improbable in the short term in the UK.  There are six actions needed to make a compelling case for Smart Highways investment: 

  • Firstly, Cooperative Vehicle Highway System (CVHS) concepts need to move from the conceptual phase to practical deployability. Four years of research within the EU funded CVIS Programme  has made progress but there is much more to be done.  Many potential applications are still at the research stage and are not ready for full scale implementation trials let alone any move to operations. Timing considerations are also important here since the V2I interactions need to be possible with an equipped fleet

  • Secondly, communication technologies that can support proposed safety critical applications have to be identified, standardised, developed and deployed in a manner that can take advantage of the capabilities of equipped vehicles (in the future) and provide continuous, fail-safe, beyond line of sight coverage. They will require sufficient capacity to accommodate and manage the differing vehicle dynamics and vehicle management processes, and have the underpinning computing capability to control vehicles with split second timing in a robust manner.  Standard wireless communications technologies typically find it difficult to provide this combination of reliability, security, capacity and speed.

  • Thirdly, international interoperability, testing, certification and applications oversight will be essential if operation and practical control in CVHS solutions is to be separate from vehicle drivers. The ability for vehicles to work seamlessly within such services, no matter where they travel internationally, will be a major concern. This will require very clear configuration management and change control processes to be established to ensure compatibility, together with sensible warnings to drivers where their vehicle cannot be supported for a particular application. There must also be advice on the alternative driving regime that must then apply.

  • Fourthly, there needs to be consensus that such systems are desirable. The Department for Transport has not prioritised the identification and implementation of telematics solutions over recent years so a potential learning process is required to enable policy development for these systems. The alternatives then need to be considered in conjunction with other states

  • Fifthly, the business case needs to be clear, offering substantive benefits over and above other types of road infrastructure investment. When funding is severely constrained, only the strongest economic considerations are likely to create the context in which investments can be allocated to new approaches

  • Lastly, responsibility and liability for these systems needs to be clearly defined and apportioned. Driver’s loss of control is already underway in certain vehicle applications and new systems are being developed to take over in some critical circumstances. However, they cannot work in the right way for every scenario and somehow users have to be protected from the system as well as from ‘themselves’. In some respects this may be the most intractable problem of all, even with the successes of the Google Autonomous vehicle.

Not there yet

In conclusion, although CVHS applications offer the prospect to improve the use of the road network and the experience of drivers and passengers, there is an element of chicken and egg around funding to support the deployment of such systems. More needs to be done in the short term to seed development of viable solutions together with quantification of the potential benefits. With tight budgets struggling to keep potholes filled, looking at the investment required to address cooperative systems will be a challenge, with much hard work still to do.

Duncan Matheson is a transport expert at PA Consulting Group

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