Beam me up: advice will be streamed to dashboards by fibre-optic cables in motorway

Beam me up: advice will be streamed to dashboards by fibre-optic cables in motorway

Signs could become a thing of the past

HUNDREDS OF miles of fibre-optic cables running along the centre of England’s busiest motorways will aim to eradicate congestion by beaming traffic information and speed limits directly into cars.

Highways England has announced proposals to create a high-tech broadband “spine” capable of communicating directly with modern and driverless cars in a step towards ending the need for traditional road signs.

Under the plans, much of the motorway network between London and Bristol, Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds — about 700 miles — will become “smart” motorways by as early as 2030.

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Part of the existing network has been converted, including different speed limits to regulate traffic flows, hard shoulders being stripped out to create an extra lane and overhead gantries that warn of breakdowns ahead. This system is to be expanded to cover most of the country’s busiest routes: the M1, M4, M6, M25, M42 and M40.

Highways England said that a high-speed fibre-optic network would also be laid on all smart stretches and would eventually be capable of “communicating directly with vehicles”, possibly using superfast 5G broadband. It is expected to relay warnings about traffic, divert vehicles to other roads and even suggest changing lanes in the event of an accident ahead.

The system would also be able to anticipate when road use would be heaviest, such as during school holidays or before a sporting event, and suggest alternative routes.

“Our engineers’ dream would be to stop having speed limit signs by the side of the road”

Jim O’Sullivan, chief executive of Highways England, told The Times that the system would eventually communicate with driverless cars to control their speed by beaming limits directly into the vehicle’s computer. “Ultimately, our engineers’ dream would be to stop having speed limit signs by the side of the road because you have just broadcast to the car what the speed limit is,” he said.

A £15 million trial of the “connected car” technology is set to take place on the A2 and M2 between London and Kent next year. It will be introduced elsewhere in the motorway system from 2023, with completion of the smart network scheduled between 2030 and 2040.

The plans will be announced as part of a blueprint for England’s motorways and principal A-roads over the next five-year funding period, from 2020-25. Highways England, the government-funded company that operates the network, will ask for £30 billion for the upgrade, though the final figure has yet to be agreed. The plans coincide with a new funding system, with cash from vehicle excise duty being ringfenced for major roads for the first time in 80 years.

The Highways England plan will include using drones to fly over parts of the network to report on the causes of congestion and using data from car suspension systems to pinpoint where potholes have formed.

It will also commit to pushing forward on upgrades such as a new tunnel under the Thames east of Dartford and a possible new tunnel under the Pennines between Manchester and Sheffield.

The moves come amid a surge in traffic jams. Official figures show that vehicles travelled a record 68 billion miles on Britain’s motorways in the year ending in June, up by more than a third since the mid-Nineties. Traffic has increased at a faster rate on motorways than any other type of road.

The smart motorway network uses a high-speed fibre-optic network — the National Roads Telecommunications Service — which feeds information to overhead gantries, roadside signs and controls some CCTV cameras. Mr O’Sullivan said that this would be adapted to emit signals directly to driverless and high-tech connected cars.

Chris Grayling, the transport secretary, said: “This government is making people’s journeys better, faster and safer to give people better access to jobs, schools and their community.”

Graeme Paton

This article first appeared in The Times