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Department for Transport announce trial of autonomous vehicles on the road to start later this year

The Government has committed to a "trebling" of previously planned spending on roads. But in terms of planning intelligently for the future - such as development and deployment of traffic management systems and technologies, as well as the increased use of data and information - the Department for Transport, while promising to "embrace technology", merely offered to "continue to watch developments in technology, to respond to emerging trends, understand their potential impacts and capture their benefits, as well as to guard against possible negative effects."

The Department, in detailing the road investment plans did tentatively suggest there will be "a ground-breaking trial of these vehicles on the road is expected to start later this year".

Major new road enhancements

According to George Osbourne's statement to Parliament of 27 June Investing in Britain’s future"By 2020-21 the Government will treble investment in major new road enhancements from today’s levels".

The Government will invest over £28 billion in enhancements and maintenance of national and local roads to:

  • add extra lanes to the busiest motorways, the equivalent of at least an additional 221 lane miles, by opening the hard shoulder to traffic and using new technology;
  • build all available Highways Agency road projects, tackling the most congested parts of the network, subject to value for money and deliverability, including the A14 from Cambridge to Huntingdon and M4 from London to Reading;
  • identify and fund solutions to tackle some of the most notorious and longstanding road hot spots in the country, including feasibility studies to look at problems on the A303 to the South West, the A27 on the south coast, the A1 north of Newcastle, the A1 Newcastle-Gateshead Western by-pass, connectivity to Leeds airport and trans-Pennine routes between Sheffield and Manchester;
  • upgrade the national non-motorway network managed by the Highways Agency with a large proportion moved to dual-lane and grade-separated road standard to ensure free-flowing traffic nationwide;
  • repair the national and local road network. A total commitment of £10 billion with nearly £6 billion to help local authorities repair the local road network and over £4 billion to enable the Highways Agency to resurface the vast majority of the national network by 2020-21; and
  • transform the Highways Agency into a publicly-owned corporation, drawing on the findings of the Cook Review, which has the long-term funding certainty and flexibility which will enable it to deliver capital efficiencies worth £600 million by 2020-21.

Congestion will only get worse

Congestion of the whole road network is estimated to cost the economy £19 billion every year, creating delays and uncertainty for commuters and businesses alike. "This pattern will only get worse in the future with traffic levels estimated to be anywhere between 22 to 71% higher by 2040," according to the report.

The Government's programme of works is just the start of a programme likely to cost between £30 billion to £50 billion over a 10 to 15 year period to upgrade the nation's roads.

"The Government plans to build all available Highways Agency road projects, tackling the most congested parts of the network, subject to the usual tests of value for money and deliverability."

"The Government will also add two lanes to the busiest motorways. This is equivalent to adding at least 221 miles of extra capacity to the busiest arteries of the country's transport network. This investment brings together the latest international techniques, such as Active Traffic Management Systems, with British technology such as the Motorway Incident Detection and Automated Signalling (MIDAS) loop system which measures traffic flows in real time and predicts and manages traffic flows to keep the country moving and avoid costly tailbacks. Since the introduction of the new system on the M42 in 2006, there has been a 22% improvement in journey times, 10% reduction in emissions as traffic flows more freely and zero fatalities on this stretch of road."

Action for Roads - A network for the 21st century

Subsequently to the Chancellor's statement, The Department for Transport this month fleshed out the proposed spending plans for Roads in it's report to Parliament Action for Roads - A network for the 21st century.

The Department at the same time also released its latest traffic forecasts predicting that by 2040 traffic on strategic roads will have grown by 46%, based upon central estimates of population growth, economic growth and the decline in the cost of motoring.

Since growth depends on a range of scenarios, if the costs of motoring fall and population grows more quickly, this could mean traffic could grow by as much as 72%. If economic forecasts were downgraded, if population growth stagnated and if motoring technology did not develop as fast as predicted, the increase would be smaller. However, the minimum forecast increase, 24%, is still a substantial rise on current levels.

Autonomous Vehicle Trials - Embracing technology

In the embracing technology section of the report, the Department for Transport states that, "Vehicle technology is advancing quickly, and systems that interact with their surroundings and with other vehicles are becoming increasingly common."

"These technologies create the opportunity for vehicles that can autonomously manage actions that are currently reserved for the driver and could, in the future, be able to carry out all of the driver tasks. The UK has a fantastic opportunity to be at the forefront of these developments. While the emergence of semi-autonomous and autonomous vehicles will not remove the need for investment now in our roads, they have the potential to transform the way we travel on roads."

Two examples of research projects were cited; a 2012 experimental ‘platooning’ system demonstrated in Spain and Sweden under an EU-funded project, and the research in Oxford on a semi-autonomous car that can learn the environment in which it routinely travels and advise the driver when it feels ready to take responsibility for control of the vehicle.

The Department said it "will work with industry and the research community to encourage the development and introduction of advanced technologies, ensuring that systems are safe and reliable before allowing them onto our roads. Separately, we will be commissioning a scoping study to look at the barriers to implementation and explore opportunities for UK trials."

Consulting on a number of the individual elements

The report concludes that the government "will be consulting on a number of the individual elements as reform moves forward, particularly those areas that will have an effect on the existing staff at the Highways Agency."

We will be setting out some of our proposals in greater detail in the year ahead. However, we would welcome any views on the issues contained within this document, particularly during July and August.You can contribute by email to roads.reform@dft.gsi.gov.uk, or by posting your views to: Action for Roads Department for Transport 3/24 Great Minster House 33 Horseferry Road London SW1P 4DR

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