Investing in innovation to drive better journeys

Tony Malone

Funding is being channelled into more technology for monitoring roads, while innovation and research teams work to harness the next best ideas for enhancing the way road networks are used and looked after, says Highways England's Tony Malone.

Highways England is embarking on the Government’s biggest investment in roads in a generation. In the next four years, £15 billion will be spent on building and enhancing the country’s roads, improving capacity, unlocking economic growth and, most importantly, making it easier and quicker for motorists to get from A to B, with fewer hold ups.

The investment we are making right now, will reap results in the years and decades ahead.

As part of this, £215 million is being channelled into great new ideas and technological advances, including monitoring equipment that means our traffic officers will be able to reach stopped vehicles quicker and close roads less often. These innovations will help enhance safety, improve driver satisfaction and boost the economy: our key aims.

We now have the opportunity to use vast amounts of real-time, real-world information to help shape what we do.

By using latest monitoring technology, we can estimate far more than how fast a lane is flowing or how many vehicles (or kind of vehicle) are moving. We can see the number of drivers and passengers, the weather conditions and the estimated journey times. The data available encompasses the finest details of how our road network operates, in real time, how it fluctuates and changes from minute to minute, and how peaks and troughs impact upon the experience of all of our road users. 

So how do we use this data to improve journeys and make our roads better for the public? It’s a question that our specialists at Highways England ask themselves every day as our Research and Development and Innovation teams consider opportunities to improve England’s major motorway systems. 

And what do we want for England’s major roads in the next decade?

We are already making our roads not just better and smarter, but safer.  We are using systems to simulate the operation of our entire network so that we can plan everything from large scale projects to improving the way we deal with incidents on the network, reducing the impact on motorists.

We are about to trial some innovative and exciting projects, including using radar technology to spot accidents in tunnels. We expect this technology will improve arrival times for our officers and speed up unavoidable road closures.

Highways England already uses laser systems to measure surface condition to within a fraction of a millimetre, leading to better maintenance planning. And we have shared much of our own network data, allowing third party app makers to improve Sat Nav technology. All of this is leading to journeys that are safer, quicker, and better- changes powered by continuous improvement, efficient operations, and with the public’s needs in mind. 

The future of our roads will affect everyone, even those who won’t travel on them. Journeys, from food distribution, materials for industry and ambulances to the simplest trips to shopping centres and cinema complexes, will all be improved with innovation in design, intelligent traffic management and better community planning.

We are developing a programme which looks beyond 2020 and anticipates the changed world of motoring. We are planning and anticipating the future of our roads, so that we can provide the innovation that will be required as new vehicles and demand changes our network.

It all stems from the unique way in which the organisation is placed to guide and help our supply chain to be bold, think bigger, and use efficient processes to be more productive. 

We are moving towards an open source, data-centric world, where operators and suppliers share best practice and information with others to improve and enhance everyone’s experience. Successful innovation is as much about the talent and ideas of the people we employ as it is about the tarmac and sophisticated road coverings that we lay down. 

It’s an exciting and exhilarating world ahead for road transport ahead. Highways England is working to remain at the forefront of developing technology that will make journeys better for drivers. 

Tony Malone is Highways England's chief information officer and executive for IT. He will be part of a panel discussing Data as National Infrastructure at Highways UK at the NEC on 17th November