Wi-Fi roads part of Highways England's proposals to transform motorway network

Highways England has announced plans for wireless internet to be potentially installed across 4,000 miles of UK roads as part of government ambitions to have fully autonomous cars by 2021.

The government agency has outlined its vision in its latest Strategic Road Network Report which has been published today. The report shows how technology will play an increasingly major role in keeping people moving, and the country connected. The announcement details how Highways England intends to spend £15bn of investment from 2020 with high speed fibre-optic cabling across the network judged to play a massive role in the development of autonomous vehicles.

The report also stresses the importance of keeping existing roads maintained in a way that minimises disruption. Connected vehicles could improve the efficiency and safety by being programmed to spot potholes and transmit the information back to the road operator. While drones are an example of reducing labour-intensive activities if used to fly overhead and report back on incidents, thus improving response times. 

Highways England chief executive, Jim O’Sullivan, said: “We are delivering a record £15bn of government investment to give people safe, efficient and reliable journeys, and provide businesses with the links they need to prosper and grow. Because people’s journeys are important to us we are setting out our high level aspirations which will help ensure the network continues to drive economic growth, jobs and prosperity, and keeps traffic moving today, and into the future.”

The report outlines eight aspirations for the next road period:

  • Focus on operations, maintenance and renewals
  • Build the smart motorway spine of the network
  • Roll out expressways
  • Undertake transformational investments
  • Deliver a balanced programme
  • Renew focus on small schemes
  • Deliver through refined designated funds
  • Prepare for the future

Technology innovators have welcomed today’s announcement and believe it’s the first step in attempts to reassure the public that smart motorways and new technology will provide real and tangible benefits. 

Russell Goodenough, client managing director of Fujitsu UK and Ireland, said: “These proposals to transform England’s motorways highlights that the transport industry is at the crossroads between the old and the new. We’re expecting continuous transformation in the sector, and seeing Highways England design new roads with connected vehicles in mind is confirming the speed at which the industry is innovating. Making smart motorways the new norm will help us determine how autonomous vehicles fit into our existing transport infrastructure. It’s positive to see Highways England and private companies align their goals to educate the UK public on the technology, and how it can improve road safety.”

Some transport experts have been more cautious over today's announcement and believe more detail is needed on the practicalities.

Philippa Oldham, head of Transport and Manufacturing at the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, said: “The way in which we travel is changing, so influencing demand for journeys is one of the most sustainable forms of transport planning. Highways England rightly identifies that we need to invest in our roads against a backdrop of increasing demand, but fails to consider how to harness technology to avoid unnecessary travel and, in particular, avoid travelling during the morning and evening peaks. It needs to provide more detail on the practical implications. Take the example of integrating driverless vehicles into the current transport network – we will need to standardise road signage and road markings to enable driverless vehicles to operate in the safest way possible.”  

The Department for Transport has also today launched its consultation into Highways England’s initial report. The consultation will run until 7 February 2018. The results will be used by the department to help develop the next Road Investment Strategy which the government is expected to publish in 2019.

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