Getting the strategic road network ready for autonomous vehicles calls for collaboration – Joanna White, National Highways

by | Oct 23, 2022 | Safety, Technology

Joanna White, Roads Development Director at National Highways, outlines the importance of collaboration and information sharing to successfully implement connected services. 

Vehicles are becoming increasingly more sophisticated, designed to keep us safer and make our journeys more enjoyable. Over the next decade, technology will transform the way we travel and we may even start to see driverless cars on our network. It’s vital that the road network is ready for these changes.

Following the launch of National Highways’ Connected and Autonomous Vehicle (CAV) trials safety guidance, National Highways is working to ensure safety is at the forefront of all CAV trials on England’s motorways and A-roads.

It’s imperative that any trials that happen on our network put the safety of drivers and other road users first and foremost. While our role is not to mandate how those running CAV trials manage safety, we would encourage them to apply the framework of the safety risk management standard. We launched our new CAV safety trials guidance to assist in this.

Trials have already taken place

Between 2015 and 2020 we ran pioneering trials of connected and autonomous vehicles, working with industry, other transport authorities, local authorities and wider government.

These trials included the UK Connected Intelligent Transport Environment (UKCITE) project with University of Warwick; A2/M2 connected corridor that created a “wi-fi road” to connect vehicles and infrastructure wirelessly with Arup; HelmUK, which involved freight platooning; and HumanDrive, which involved a Nissan-led 368km autonomous drive.

For the UKCITE and A2/M2 trials, participants drove along sections of the network with overhead signs and as they did so, they could see the same information on the in-vehicle panel.

The trials tested the sort of information we can provide – like speed limits, journey time information and things like road works ahead – and how things like the speed travelled affects the information. Timing is a critical element, so ensuring that people are getting information that is current and relevant.

We also needed to test whether any extra communication technology is needed, or whether the mobile phone network would suffice. The trial concluded that we could indeed use the mobile network, and that information could be provided in a timely way. This has now led to a piece of work where taking the learning from these relatively small scale pilots, and looking at how we scale this approach across the whole of the network. And we’re looking at that from right across the spectrum of those who drive on the network – from lorry drivers, those who drive for business or socially.

For the HelmUK freight platooning trial we were looking at how information could be shared between a convoy of lorries. We wanted to understand what happened if you put a certain number of lorries close together. What benefits and efficiencies could be achieved? For example, could fuel savings be made, resulting in a real benefit from a logistics operational point of view?

The trial also looked at how the platooning vehicles interacted with other vehicles on the network and how that could happen in a safe manner. Tying back to the point about the safety case framework and applying a safety risk management approach. These trials have recently been completed so we’ll be able to announce outcomes and next steps soon.

Finally, the Nisson HumanDrive trial was about enabling a trial of an autonomous vehicle driving on real roads in a real-world environment. Looking at how we could support Nissan and the other members of the consortia to do that in a safe manner, so that they’re considering all the different elements of our road system.

The trial looked at aspects like how a vehicle travels through roadworks, how well its read white lines and other roadside “furniture” and how the vehicle knows where it needs to be on the network. This trial involved gathering data and then building a route that can be taken safely, as well as identifying risks.

These trials are all helping us to get ready for a future which includes autonomous vehicles, which is probably a couple of decades away but there are already some autonomous systems in use.

Advanced driver-assistance systems (ADAS) are becoming more common. These features can assist drivers in driving and parking functions and use automated technology, such as cameras and sensors, to detect surroundings or obstacles, but are not classed as autonomous as the driver is still needed to operate the vehicle.

One of the newest features in vehicles is the automated lane keeping system, which has been mandated on motorways to allow for speeds up to 60km/h. We’re working with the government’s Centre for Connected and Autonomous Vehicles to ensure that safety is thoroughly considered.

The importance of collaborating with stakeholders

Collaborating with stakeholders from across the industry will be the key to success in ensuring standards are met. We need to stay in constant dialogue with vehicle manufacturers, those developing the technology and law makers because there are so many interdependencies. There’s a clear interaction between the vehicle and the road, and that requires us to look at how we develop our standards and look at our future road design and our information systems.

It’s the chicken or the egg situation, because you’ve got the manufacturers of vehicles or other technology developing things. And do we react to what they’re developing and then change our infrastructure and standards, or do we work with them together? Because even developing that, we develop our infrastructure at the same time or do we say this is our standard and this is what you need to develop in order to go on a work on our motorways.

It’s probably a blend of all these factors. Depending on the service, the circumstances and where it is, it can be quite relatively easy to change something. It might not be for us to change, it might be for the manufacturer or the service provider to change it. But we need to have those conversations and those relationships in place, otherwise the risk is that we invest money changing something and it’s completely unnecessary and vice versa.

We’re already focusing on the information provision side of things and our next task is looking at how that ends up in the vehicle.

We might push the data, for example on planned roadworks, out to a third party provider who then shares it. But then how do you make sure that it is used responsibly? It takes time to develop, because of the nature of what you’re trying to do.

Some of the location data just isn’t accurate for us to be confident that it would reach the vehicles with that information. The quality of the geospatial data is critical. We’ll need to develop standards and policies in this area.

With these standards and policies in place, customers will be able to get the information that they need quickly and efficiently, and it’ll be tailored to them specifically. They won’t just be getting a blanket set of information that they’ve got to sift through and find the bits that apply to them. Ultimately this should enhance the quality of their journey and their whole experience.

People should know a journey will take a certain amount of time, and should be told in a timely fashion about any delays or diversions that they would need to take and they took the diversion and it was correct.

Gaining trust will be critical; people need to know that the information they see coming into their vehicle saying, for example ‘obstruction ahead, move over’ is accurate.

Once we’ve gained that trust, we’ll be able to manage people’s expectations better, and of course there are huge safety benefits because we’ll be able to target people much more quickly, helping them to proactively manage situations.

The journey to achieving connected services

Number one to achieving success is collaboration. We are just one part of an end to end process to make this information available and useful. We’ll need to collaborate with external parties but also with those within our business too.

And then of course there is data quality; making sure any information we provide meets legislation and making sure it all joins up clearly. We might push out that information, but how it’s provided back into the vehicle needs to comply with the legislation and not be distracting.

Our relationship with the government is key here as well, so that we’re making sure that we’re in step with their plans and that we can provide that advice to them. How it might impact our operation of the network and for the future, a key question will be about our role as a network operator and what does that really mean and what does that look like?

Driver education and communication is going to be fundamental. We will need people to learn more about the features available in their vehicles, absorb the information provided and take the correct action.

The future road network is very exciting and it’s thrilling to be part of the preparations of what’s to come.

Joanna White, Roads development director with National Highways will join the panel discussion on ‘The roadmap to (CAM) connected and automated mobility take up’ on Day 1 – 2 November at 11.50am in the Technology and Innovation theatre.