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Role of data in driverless cars infratech highlighted in NIC projects

Data can be used to maximise the potential of infrastructure assets, as demonstrated by new plans outlined to improve the flow of vehicles through traffic light systems, a specialist in infrastructure and technology projects has said.24 May 2018

Simon Colvin of Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law.com, welcomed the announcement by the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) in the UK of plans to test new technology for managing traffic flows.

The NIC announced on Wednesday that five ideas aimed at supporting the use of connected and autonomous vehicles (CAV) on UK roads will each obtain £30,000 of public money to help fund testing of the technology. Included in the five 'roads for the future' projects are two focused on improving the flow of traffic.

Engineering company AECOM will use a simulation model of the A59 in York to look at "how smart signals could advise drivers and vehicles the speed they should drive at, so they arrive at the next set of traffic lights just as they turn green", the NIC said. The technology could help "cut congestion" and stop pollution caused by "stop-go driving", it said.

The second project is being overseen by Leeds City Council and will look at "how the data generated from digitally connected cars could be used to improve traffic light systems", and enable "highway authorities to better manage traffic on their roads and reduce tailbacks", according to the NIC. Similar to the AECOM project, models of roads across Leeds will be used to test the concept.

Computer World UK reported earlier this year that Transport for London (TfL) is engaged in a similar scheme to use data from and relevant to the rail and underground networks in London to identify causes of disruption and schedule maintenance prior to faults occurring. Akis Tsiotsios, a data scientist at TfL, has said that the move is expected to deliver annual savings of approximately £3 million a year, according to the report.

"As we move in to the next generation of infrastructure assets, data will be the lifeblood which can be used to better predict how those assets can be used and drive better efficiencies for the operator and user," Colvin said. "By realising the value that lies in the data there are opportunities for businesses to make commercial gains through data monetisation, such as by commercialising the data models and provision of data analytics."

"Beyond the potential for managing traffic flows and congestion, there is lots of scope for data from CAVs and CAV infrastructure to revolutionise the UK's road networks. Data could underpin solutions that provide for the safe use of automated and semi-automated vehicles, directing CAVs to available parking, and delivery of real-time weather or accident warnings to vehicle occupants, for example. The environmental benefits that can be derived from using digital technologies and data to support the smooth operation of CAVs are also significant,” he said.

"We are seeing more and more convergence between technology, data and infrastructure. Our report on the evolution of infratech highlighted that there are challenges to maximising the use of data in infratech projects, from uncertainty over the ownership of data and capturing and analysing data within the boundaries of data protection law. However, with the right approach and compliant processes businesses can develop business models built around the use of data and infratech solutions," Colvin said.

One of the five entries selected for the testing phase of the 'roads for the future' competition will be announced as the overall winner in the autumn and claim a £50,000 prize, the NIC said.

Infrastructure expert Jonathan Hart of Pinsent Masons said that the challenges each project will face is in moving from "the desktop study stage" to "integrating the new technologies into the built environment". The process will entail engaging with highways authorities and Highways England over the planning as to how this is going to be integrated into existing contracts and frameworks and future programmes for capital works, he said.

Sir John Armitt, chair of the NIC, said: "We can see for ourselves the progress in developing cars for the future, with trials of driverless cars taking place across the country – we now need to make sure the technology on our roads keeps up."

Chair of the judging panel for the 'roads for the future' competition, Bridget Rosewell, said: "We cannot afford to focus purely on the technology under the bonnet – we also have to consider how our roads will work to support new driverless cars from the moment they arrive. We wanted to see how the rules of the road, road design and traffic management could all be adapted to accommodate these new vehicles – and these five entries particularly demonstrated the exciting potential there is to make the best use of those we already have."