Article source: IMechE

Drones fly to accident sites, roads fix themselves and cars report potholes in a futuristic vision of motorways, set out today by Highways England.

The Strategic Road Network Initial Report says technology will play “an increasingly major role in keeping people moving, and the country connected” in the near future. The report focuses on the “strategic road network”, the nation’s motorways and major A-roads used by 4m vehicles every day.

Concepts set out in the report include embedded sensors in structures and roads providing live feeds of condition information, which Highways England is currently developing. The sensors could highlight and prevent major issues from severe weather, accidents or wear and tear, including concrete degradation or vibrations.

New connected vehicles could also spot and report potholes, the report says, uploading data on their location and severity. That information could then be shared with local maintenance crews and other connected vehicles to help others avoid them.

“Going forward, technology is likely to play an important role as Highways England seeks to reduce congestion and improve road surface quality,” RAC roads policy spokesman Nicholas Lyes told Professional Engineering.

While detecting potholes is extremely important, fixing defects is just as essential, said Lyes. “Comparatively, drivers tell us that road surface quality on motorways is better than local roads. However, given the high-speed nature of our motorway network, any process which can successfully utilise technology to reduce potholes is a welcome step and can improve both safety and motorists’ driving experience.”

New roads will be designed with connected vehicles in mind, Highways England said. This reveals how fast the industry is moving and will help integrate autonomous vehicles onto the roads, said Russell Goodenough from Fujitsu UK & Ireland’s transport sector.

“Fujitsu’s own research showed that, as of today, 41% of people would be uncomfortable being picked up by a driverless car, and less than two in ten would be happy to put their child in one alone,” he said. “However, we can persuade the public by demonstrating the benefits smart motorways and connected cars have… it’s positive to see Highways England and private companies align their goals to educate the UK public on the technology, and how it can improve road safety.”

Another concept aiming to reduce congestion and minimise the cost of repairs is self-healing roads. Highways England is funding a team at the Nottingham Transportation Engineering Centre, which is testing capsules of oil embedded into the road surface which split open, soften the asphalt and stick it together again if cracks appear.

The report, which will inform the government’s next road investment strategy from 2020, also calls for more electric charging stations and suggests drones could fly overhead and report back on incidents to improve response times. It has “high-level aspirations,” said Highways England chief executive Jim O’Sullivan, and will “help ensure the network continues to drive economic growth, jobs and prosperity, and keeps traffic moving today and into the future”.

A public consultation on the report runs until 7 February 2018. To take part, visit the government website.

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