Smart systems to keep our roads rolling

New technologies are making traffic easier both to manage and avoid, helping offset the sharp rise in vehicle numbers

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Already a daily headache for millions, congestion on our roads is in danger of escalating as population growth and urbanisation accelerate dramatically. By 2045, the number of people living in cities will increase one-and-a-half times to 6 billion, or two-thirds of the global population, according to the World Bank. By then, vehicles on the world's roads could double to 2.5 billion, predicts the OECD.

Smart systems to keep our roads rolling
Smart systems to keep our roads rolling

Throughout the 20th century, cities tried to solve their traffic problems by building more and wider roads. With land an increasingly scarce resource, this is frequently no longer an option. 

But more cars needn't lead to more congestion, because a new era of smart technologies will enable us to manage our transport systems like never before. Armed with data from sensors in roads, vehicles and tyres, cities are already using predictive analytics to reduce traffic congestion. Drivers, meanwhile, increasingly rely on social media to detect and avoid problems ahead. 

While much attention is presently focused on smart vehicles, there is a huge amount that can be done to make our infrastructure smarter, says Dr Marcus Enoch, a transport specialist at the UK's Loughborough University.

Real-time traffic signals
Take traffic signals. Until recently, town planners relied on historical data, often only resetting light sequences every three to five years. Today, ‘smart' traffic systems using radar and cameras deploy sophisticated algorithms that adjust signals based on real-time conditions. In a pilot scheme in the US city of Pittsburgh, for example, travel times along a corridor with these new devices fell by 25 per cent while vehicle emissions dropped 20 per cent. Moreover, such systems do not have to involve big upfront costs; they can be installed one intersection at a time as funding becomes available.

Using road space flexibly is also showing promise. In the UK, as part of ‘smart motorway' initiatives, drivers are increasingly allowed to use the hard shoulder when congestion is bad. In the first year of a smart scheme on the M62 in northern England, commuting times fell by 30 minutes a week in one direction while collision rates dropped 34 per cent, more than expected. This despite a 6 per cent increase in usage.

Dynamic tolling
Tolls are also proving useful tools in managing traffic, as demonstrated in the US city of San Diego. New express lanes on the I-15 employ dynamic tolling whereby the toll rate fluctuates depending on congestion levels. Motorists pay up to $8 (£5.50) to use the express lanes at the busiest times, but less than $1 when traffic is flowing well. After a year of operation, average journey times on the 20-mile corridor had dropped from 40 to 30 minutes for all travellers.

In the future, motorists could decide when to travel and at what cost. “You could book a slot for your journey and pay a supplement for going at a busy time on a particular route, or go for free by travelling later or taking a deviation,” says Dr Enoch.

Investment in nationwide real-time systems
Better travel planning is already possible thanks to government and private sector investment in collecting and sharing real-time data. In China, where the number of registered motor vehicles jumped 248 per cent in the decade to 2012, an internet-based traffic management and information system is being developed. According to the Ministry of Public Security, users will access it via the government's official website, by smartphone application or by calling a nationwide telephone helpline. 

In parallel, personal traffic navigation systems and apps are becoming increasingly sophisticated. TomTom, the satnav company, estimates that it reduces users' journey times by up to 15 per cent. Its MyDrive app creates personalised notifications of traffic ahead on drivers' smartphones, providing alternative routes.

But the biggest breakthroughs will come when vehicles can talk to each other and to the smart infrastructure on which they are travelling. Luxury marques have made a start; Audi's Traffic Light Assist system, for example, can tell drivers to slow down or speed up to make a traffic light. And together with fellow German carmakers BMW and Daimler, Audi last year purchased Here, Nokia's mapping service, the supplier of digital maps to four out of five vehicles. The plan is for onboard sensors to contribute to the platform's wealth of real-time information.

Combining data
Pirelli is at the forefront of such developments: its Cyber Tyres employ sensors to collect data on everything from loads and temperatures to pressure levels and wear. Eventually, the data will dovetail with external data sources – local service stations or other cars – to help drivers plot efficient routes and avoid hazards such as icy roads and traffic jams.

Initiatives like these are set to become more important as the costs of congestion rise. In the US alone, travel delays due to congestion cost the economy $160 billion (£112 billion) in 2015, according to Inrix, the travel analytics company, and the Texas A&M Transportation Institute.

“Connectedness, big data and automation will have an immense impact over the next decade on how we travel,” says Jim Bak, a director at Inrix. “Data and analytics are evolving to provide transportation agencies with the insight needed to not only make our existing transportation systems work smarter but also to more quickly pinpoint where investment can have a lasting impact.”