Technology spies to control traffic

DEFENCE manufacturers are busy beating swords into traffic management systems. Among the companies shortlisted last week to test out motorway toll technology were GEC-Marconi, Lockheed and Racal - companies more often associated with warfare than roadworks.

Their skills in tracking and identifying enemy aircraft or tanks are being adapted to tracking cars and lorries, while high-resolution spy cameras are being used to photograph the number plates of erring vehicles. Meanwhile, other hi-tech companies are turning their attention to the roads - the same technology that was developed to keep track of pigs and prisoners, for example, should be just as good at monitoring Ford Mondeos.

The Government has announced that eight consortia will take part in road pricing tests (which will include a non-charging pilot on the M3). These are just a few of the many schemes being run worldwide to bring hi-tech to the traditionally unexciting world of traffic management. The industry hopes it will re-ignite a market that is worth pounds 700m-pounds 800m a year but that has has been marking time for the past 20 years. Until the mid-1970s, it grew rapidly on the back of junction controls - mostly traffic lights. Then it matured and many players left the stage, selling their subsidiaries to the handful of companies that stayed in. In the UK, the leaders now are Siemens, which bought Plessey's traffic management company, and the quoted Peek.

In the past five years, growing congestion, combined with the need to raise revenues, has led to increased interest in more sophisticated systems. The EC set up its Drive programme to look at better ways of managing traffic, while the US government backed the Intelligent Transport Systems programme. As a result, traffic technology has leapt from simple vehicle detectors buried beneath roads to complex systems that can involve electronic tagging, microwave or infrared links, satellite positioning and sophisticated data transfer.

The experiments now under way come in two flavours, urban and motorway. Urban schemes are designed to reduce congestion rather than raise revenue: they can be complex traffic flow schemes, or they can restrict vehicle numbers. The first electronic system designed to restrict access to a city is planned for Singapore, which already has a low-tech traffic restriction scheme. GEC-Marconi is bidding to install this system.

Motorway schemes are designed primarily to raise revenue, usually to maintain the roads. Toll motorways are widespread but always involve a booth at which vehicles must stop and pay. Future toll motorways will not have booths - instead vehicles will carry electronic tags, possibly embedded in the windscreen, which will "talk" to sensors on overhead gantries.

The British experiment will try out a number of different systems. For example, cars will talk to the roadside by microwave or infrared beam, while the satellite Global Positioning System - already used to tell dispatchers where London's cabbies are - will also be tested. Enforcement will generate a lot of solutions, too: most, but not all, will rely on high-resolution cameras.

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