Are we nearing the end of the line for road markings?

With rapid progress towards connected and eventually fully automated vehicles, there is a changing dynamic in the way drivers, vehicles and roads must work together to make each journey safe and comfortable, says Professor Nick Reed, academy director at TRL

Road markings play a pivotal role in the driving task. They provide drivers with guidance as to where their vehicle should be positioned; indicate the direction of the road ahead; provide information about appropriate speed, parking and directions, and some can even provide tactile and auditory feedback to a driver. However, with rapid progress being made towards partially, highly and eventually fully automated vehicles, will we even need road markings in the future?

The use of road markings for lane guidance has been around for many years. Lane assist technologies are now relatively commonplace in our vehicles, while manufacturers such as General Motors and Tesla have announced new iterations of the technology in order to manage speed effectively and enable 'hands off/feet off' highway driving.

These driver assistance features provide safety and comfort to drivers, many of whom have come to depend on this technology. In fact, some have even gone as far as to complain to authorities when lane markings do not meet the required standards for the guidance systems to operate -- highlighting the importance of providing road markings that are not only legible to human drivers, but to driver assistance systems too.

Currently, lane guidance systems rely on the presence of a human driver to attend to the driving situation at all times and intervene if/when necessary. However, higher levels of vehicle automation will eventually enable drivers to engage in tasks other than driving.

Google's self-driving cars and similar systems from Delphi, Bosch and the University of Oxford depend on highly detailed and frequently updated three-dimensional mapping information. Data held within these maps can potentially include all of the information that is provided to a human driver by road markings, thereby reducing sensor and processing load. It can also be more easily standardised between different international jurisdictions than is possible with conventional markings. So what does this mean for the future of road markings?

If such vehicles come to represent a significant proportion of the total vehicle pool, then the need to update and maintain road markings will be significantly reduced. In fact, the presence of road markings could even constrain the use of available road space. For example, if all vehicles using a highway are automated, then road space can be managed dynamically -- potentially leading to significantly greater capacity and network efficiency.

While the benefits are clear, there are many key questions about this future scenario. How and how often, will the data needed to create these maps be collected? Will this require specific mapping vehicles or can publicly owned vehicles be used to share the necessary data? What proportion of vehicles will need to be suitably equipped before authorities can consider downgrading its road markings maintenance regime and which authority would dare go first? How will non-motorised road users be affected by such changes?

While many questions need to be answered, we cannot deny that there is a changing dynamic in the way drivers, vehicles and roads must work together to make each journey safe and comfortable. Today, the need for road markings is as great as it ever has been, but future scenarios are foreseeable where their criticality to driving may be challenged. With automated vehicles soon able to read the roads of the future, it may well be that we won't have to.

Professor Nick Reed is academy director at TRL and leads the GATEway autonomous vehicle project. Professor Nick Reed is speaking at Highways UK on 25/26 November and TRL is hosting a number of sessions within the event’s free to attend industry briefings. For further information visit

If you would like to contact Bernadette Ballantyne about this, or any other story, please email