Faced with chronic traffic congestion issues, traffic engineers have two choices: add more capacity to existing roads or manage those roads more efficiently.
However, there are limits to expansion strategies which is why the world is shifting to the idea of smart roads, industry experts indicate.
The concept is well advanced in Europe. The U.K., for example, is changing its approach towards M-class roads and in some cases A-class roads, which are secondary roads.
The current C$25-billion smart motorways project run by the Highways England agency seeks to improve traffic flow using active traffic management technology. Some 18 motorway sections are now on deck to complement the dozen or more already in place, adding 400 miles of smart roads to the system.
Driving the strategy is need. British cars travel about 274 billion miles a year and usage is expected to increase to 368 billion miles by 2040, the agency states.
The immediate benefit of a smart roads strategy is cost. Widening a motorway costs about $135 million a mile; smart road technology costs between $9 million to $25 million a mile.
The technology is based on sensors linked by Wi-Fi that calculate traffic density. Software then determines whether to intervene by lowering speed limits through digital signs. In turn this prompts drivers to slow down, smoothing out the flow and avoiding the classic "stop-start," also known as a shockwave traffic jam.
Some proponents think the technology will not only make driving safer but could also speed up the arrival of driverless vehicles that could tap into traffic density data and adjust accordingly.
In Canada, the concept is still miles away though the federal government has invested just shy of $1 million in Surrey, B.C. to develop a smart road system. It has also given money to Ontario though details are unclear as to what technology is being used.
Last fall General Motors Canada president Stephen Carlisle called on governments to invest in smart roads for smart cars and Edmonton is now testing technology to reduce congestion, warning of collisions or construction ahead.
Professor Azzedine Boukerche of the University of Ottawa is a leading advocate and researcher in the field.
He is the founder of DIVA and the Create Transit Network, two entities dedicated to creating smarter transport networks.
"DIVA was funded with $5 million from the government and $3 million from the industry," he said, noting both groups are looking at how to incorporate smart technology into both vehicles and roads.
The key, he says, will be to ensure the exchange of data will allow intelligent decisions and avoid collisions and congestion, but also to ensure that the exchange doesn’t clog up the resources dedicated to its transmission.
"We’re looking at the Cloud, at how vehicles can communicate with each other and at networks," he says. In some cases sensors may be embedded in the roads, or there may be roadside monitors, vehicles may communicate directly with each other and in some cases there may be a role for the Cloud to play.
"There are two issues, autonomous cars and smart cars," he said, adding the self-driven car is still some ways from mainstream adoption and in the meantime smart cars and roads will make better use of existing road capacities.
In Europe, however, smart roads are already shifting gears. In addition to England, Denmark has a system that tracks GPS over 4,000 kilometres of roads. Sweden is also working with Volvo in Gothenburg to relay data about road conditions in their connected vehicles. Austria, meanwhile, is working with network giant Cisco and over the last decade has installed 70,000 sensors and 6,500 traffic cameras connected by fibre optics over 2,200 kilometres of toll roads.
Highways England has a $250 million fund to look at innovative capital projects through 2021 and is mandated to deliver $2 billion in efficiencies by 2020. It plans to create an innovation centre for testing and trial technologies, such as radar to detect stalled vehicles in live traffic lanes.
The technology options are as varied as the roads themselves and is part of the dawning of the Internet of Things where everything is connected.
A pilot project on Britain’s A14 involving telecom company BT will monitor cellphone signals along a 50-mile stretch using a Wi-Fi spectrum located in the white spaces between television channels instead of mobile phone networks.
Driver advocate groups are worried it could not only lead to remote control of car speeds by traffic authorities but it could also lead to automated road tolls.
Stuart Thompson, Highways England spokesman, quickly puts the brakes to the idea.
"There are no plans for tolls from this agency," he said. "That’s a political decision. We’re not planning anything."
The big change for Highways England is the shift to a five-year funding model which allows for long-term planning from year-to-year planning, he said.