Rich Porter, Technology and Innovation Director at Zenzic, explains how ‘naked highways’ could ensure the safety of roads in the future without the need for physical roadside signage.
What is a ‘naked highway’?
A ‘naked highway’ is a term for a road which does not have any physical roadside signage – no speed limit signs, no smart motorway gantries and no stop signs. Instead, the aim is for this information to be digitally transmitted directly to the vehicle. The naked highway is the theoretical culmination of the development of digital signage on roadways and it forces people to think about and engage with a whole new way of sharing information with drivers and vehicles. The reality is that true naked highways are not likely to become viable until 2027, but aspects of digital signage replacing the physical are under development today, and will be an important part of the introduction of self-driving vehicles in the UK.
Why is the development of digital signage a good thing?
It seems like a big step now; people are accustom to physical signage and even the idea of removing them seems unthinkable. Certainly, even just 10 years ago, the idea of vehicles being connected to the internet and being able to receive pertinent data would have seemed far-fetched to most, but the nature of the vehicles we drive today has changed. Tesla has shown that having an active internet connection is desirable as it allows manufacturers to update their vehicles ‘over the air’, and consumers value the information they receive. It has now become commonplace for drivers to have their smartphones on the dashboard when driving to get traffic information on their route. These are the early signs that connected driving is becoming the norm rather than the exception.
On the other end of the equation, it is clear that to improve road safety, relevant information needs to be shared with drivers and vehicles as quickly and as accurately as possible. This is particularly true for motorways where speeds are higher, increasing thinking and braking distances. You need to know if there is a hazard on your route, and if you need to slow down, take a different route or take evasive action as soon as possible.
Today’s smart highways are at the cutting edge of what information physical signage can convey from a safety perspective. Even so, it is obviously limited compared to what digital information transmitted directly to a vehicle can do. For a start, accuracy is a problem. It is relatively common to see a motorway information board showing a caution sign, such as reporting congestion or objects in the road, but for drivers to not encounter the hazard described because it is no longer present. Or more annoyingly, to be sat at a standstill next to a sign telling you can do only 40 mph. This reduces trust in the messages shown – something that needs to be combatted.
Finally, there is the cost argument. Building and maintaining the thousands of smart motorway gantries across the UK motorway network comes with a considerable cost. It requires miles of roadworks to install new signs, on top of the work necessary to keep motorways in good condition and the information is not always the most accurate. Reducing that cost and instead using it to maintain a digital service which has higher accuracy will provide a better service.
How far away is digital signage and the ‘naked highway’ in the UK?
According to Zenzic’s UK Connected and Automated Mobility Roadmap to 2030, digital signage should be sufficiently evolved enough by 2027 to enable local authorities to be able to reduce their investment in road-side infrastructure and potentially start to remove some pieces of infrastructure.
Trials are underway across the UK to develop the technologies which will underpin digital signage, but in terms of a fully ‘naked’ highway, it is more realistic to think of this as something that will happen in 2047 or 2057.
Beyond these technologies there is also the question of developing standards and regulation will be an important early milestone in the development of these technologies to ensure everyone is heading in the same direction.
Concurrently it is important for the government to be involved in the process from the outset. This needs to be a concerted, collaborative effort to ensure that legislation and regulation can help technologies develop which meet the needs of the UK and make a genuine difference to people’s lives.
What trials are happening today?
The main trials happening today are at Midlands Future Mobility, Millbrook and Smart Mobility Living Lab (SMLL). Midlands Future Mobility is installing 5G network infrastructure along a 60km route of public urban and inter-urban roads which will support low-latency data exchanges. Millbrook has already demonstrated that a 5G connection can be maintained at speeds up to 160 mph on their high-speed bowl, and SMLL is conducting 5G testing on the streets of Greenwich.
These trials are laying the foundations for more iterative technology development over the coming years. They are proving the concept and the results are feeding into the development of bigger scale trials and the evolution of the technology necessary.
What kind of legislation will be necessary for digital signage?
Because digital signage will need to work with vehicles from a range of manufacturers, and there will need to be an option for people to retro-fit to older vehicles, the need for a common language for digital information is critical. Legislation and regulation will help shape the technology as it emerges, to ensure compatibility and compliance, which will thus secure its long-term success.
How will digital signage be better than just using Google Maps, which already indicated traffic and accidents?
The information shown on Google Maps is useful, but it is not immediate. It is based on a number of drivers taking the time to report incidents, or it measures how long certain parts of the route are taking as other Google maps users drive the same route.
What digital signage can offer, and why the development of 5G-based services and improved vehicle-to-infrastructure will be necessary, is immediate, almost real-time safety information updates. The aim is for the technology to be able to inform drivers and vehicles of an incident that may be happening three or four vehicles ahead – just out of sight but close enough to be a hazard.
The other reason for progress with this kind of technology is that self-driving vehicle development over the next decade is going to see self-driving vehicles driving more frequently on public roads. Digital signage and the accurate transmission of data is a crucial part of ensuring self-driving vehicles are able to use roads safely, especially as they will be sharing those roads with human driven vehicles.
Where will drivers see them first?
Drivers will come across digital signage, and certainly the removal of physical signage on motorways first. Because motorways have relatively simple rules and are the safest type of road, it is the logical place to roll out this technology first. The safety benefits are also easier to see on a motorway. In urban areas where there are pedestrians and cyclists there will always need to be things like traffic lights and pedestrian crossings. These systems will be connected to the same overarching digital signage systems, but there will always be situations were physical signage will be necessary, such as lights at pedestrian crossings.
Rich is the Technology and Innovation Director at Zenzic. He is a cyber security expert, with over 11 years of experience in defence and national security. His previous roles have included Director of Research and Innovation at Highways England, UK Research Liaison to the US Department of Defence and Security, and Policy Advisor and Crisis Manager at The Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Rich has a passion for new technologies and encouraging collaboration to deliver solutions to markets quickly and effectively.