London to Dover 'smart' road could help make driverless cars mainstream – expert

Go on, let's put the internet in everything...

The creation of new "smart" roads with in-built Wi-Fi technology can be an enabler of the widespread adoption of driverless and connected cars, an expert has said.

Ben Gardner, expert in autonomous vehicles technology and regulation at Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law.com, said he welcomed plans outlined by Highways England to use technology to improve road safety and the flow of traffic, deliver better information to road users, improve environmental outcomes and inform maintenance programs.

In a new innovation strategy (8-page / 1.33MB PDF) Highways England said one of the projects it would fund would be trial a new "connected corridor" of road in the South East of England.

Gardner said the plans "further evidence the government’s vision to establish the UK as a centre of excellence for the testing, development and future commercialisation of connected and autonomous vehicle technology".

"To date, much of the fanfare surrounding connected and autonomous vehicles has focused on the vehicles themselves, and understandably so. However, in order to facilitate the mainstream adoption and ultimate success of such technology, surrounding infrastructure is required which will enable the vehicles and their users to exploit all of the available features and continuously receive complete, accurate and up to date information," he said.

"As infrastructure is more difficult to regularly change and update, it is likely to be constantly chasing the tail of the technology which is operating within it. However, initiatives such as this should put the UK in a strong position to attract investment and testing. The legacy of this will be an innovative and connected road network which boasts improved safety, traffic management and user satisfaction," Gardner said.

Highways England said it will "work in partnership with government and industry to prepare our network for the vehicles of the future".

It said it would do this by "investigating operational and behavioural issues and risks; trialling connected and autonomous vehicles on our network; developing relevant infrastructure standards; developing future strategies for operating and managing the network".

The agency said it is in talks with car manufacturers as well as "undertaking feasibility studies" to inform its plans to "trial connected and autonomous vehicles on our network" and is also "investigating different technologies, infrastructure and data requirements".

"Innovation is absolutely critical to our £15bn investment plan for roads," roads minister for England Andrew Jones said. "A more reliable road network is good news for motorists and good news for the economy. Quicker, safer roads will improve access to jobs and opportunities. Placing Britain at the forefront of innovation and research in this area will also create more jobs and investment."

Highways England chief executive Jim O’Sullivan said: "We will work with our partners in the supply chain, technology specialists and the automotive industry to trial new technologies that will help make journeys on our roads safer, more reliable and better informed. This will involve supporting trials of better connected and autonomous vehicles on our motorways by the end of next year, testing radar technology to better detect breakdowns, and trialling fuel price signs on the M5 between Bristol and Exeter."

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