Smart signalling, intelligent kerbs and dynamic sat-nav; the roads of tomorrow

The National Infrastructure Commission has announced the shortlist of finalists for its competition to design roads fit for autonomous vehicles and the digital economy.

The aim of the Roads for the Future competition, launched in partnership with Highways England and Innovate UK, was to encourage the development of ideas to prepare physical infrastructure for autonomous vehicles. Smart traffic lights, flexible use of kerbsides, segregated driverless zones, and sat-navs were among the entries, which did bring forward some pretty interesting ideas.

“We can see for ourselves the progress in developing cars for the future, with trials of driverless cars taking place across the country – we now need to make sure the technology on our roads keeps up,” said John Armitt, Chairman of the National Infrastructure Commission. “These five entries clearly stood out and I look forward to seeing how their ideas develop further over the coming months.”

The finalists will not have three months to develop their ideas, before the overall winner will be announced in the autumn. So who are the five finalists?

AECOM An American engineering firm, which has come up with the idea of moderating the speeds of cars around junctions to ensure the vehicle approaches traffic lights just as they are turning green. It’s an interesting idea which will manage a consistent flow of traffic, reducing congestion and also pollution. The concept will be tested using a simulation model of the A59 in York.

Arup Using a high street in London, Arup will test out its FlexKerbs idea which can alter the use of kerbsides dependent on the time of day and requirements. Everyday features such as double yellow lines, parking bays or cycle lanes would no longer have to be permanent, and could be adapted dynamically according to the specific demands in real-time.

City Science A small firm based in Exeter which will test out the idea of sectioning off existing roads for the exclusive use of driverless vehicles. The process will mitigate risk, as well as creating distinctions between autonomous and manually-driven vehicles, perhaps aiding the normalisation process.

Immense Solutions A spin out from the Transport Systems Catapult which will aim to aid the development of satellite navigation systems. The aim here is a simple one; use data from sensors on street furniture and other vehicles to optimise travel routes in real-time. Google Maps sort of does this at the moment, but it is an incredibly rudimentary approach which is based on most-likely conditions, not real-time data. The team will be working with Oxfordshire County Council, using simulations of four busy local roads.

Leeds City Council Here the local authority will examine how data generated from digitally connected cars could be used to improve traffic light systems, allowing highway authorities to better manage traffic on their roads and reduce tailbacks.

The focus on autonomous vehicles so far has been very focused on a small aspect of the technology, but like the deployment of fibre, the physical elements will be one of the biggest challenges. As it stands physical infrastructure, such as roads or street furniture, is not up to scratch when it comes to managing autonomous vehicles.

“With 81 entries received, our Roads for the Future competition has demonstrated the keen interest there is across industry to be at the forefront of the technologies supporting the introduction of driverless cars,” said Bridget Rosewell, Chair of the Judging Panel for the Roads for the Future competition.

“We wanted to see how the rules of the road, road design and traffic management could all be adapted to accommodate these new vehicles – and these five entries particularly demonstrated the exciting potential there is to make the best use of those we already have.”

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