Smart route to easier motoring

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The Independent Online
THE smart road of the future will be wired-up new technology able to do all sorts of fancy tricks such as giving buses priority, checking lorries for overloading and enabling motorists to book a car park space, writes Christian Wolmar.

Some of this technology is available now and much is in development. As yet, little use is made of it in the UK apart from traffic management systems, which are well-established and growing in sophistication.

For example, it is now possible, by linking sensors to computers operating traffic lights, to ensure that the lights do not go to orange just as a lorry is in the 'dilemma zone' in which drivers are unsure whether to go through or not. Lights can also be told to stay green to give an oncoming bus priority.

Automatic warning systems for fog and ice are also available. All these devices rely on sensors next to roads, which transmit information via a computer to electronic signs on the roadside or on gantries.

Old-fashioned systems involving digging the road up, such as inductive loops, are being replaced by more sophisticated systems using infra-red light, microwaves, or video-image processing.

Vehicle information systems are being introduced. Trafficmaster, for example, warns of congestion on motorways. It costs about pounds 300 to install plus pounds 15 a month. However, some local authorities are worried that it may encourage motorists to avoid motorways and use local roads.

Road pricing and obtaining information about car parking relies on cars having devices called transponders, which are able to receive, process, and transmit information, normally in the form of microwaves.

The equipment will need to be standardised and Professor Peter Hills, of Newcastle University, said: 'We hope that the technology being introduced now will be able to be used across Europe. This would open up all kinds of potential for its use.'

However, there will be opposition from the civil liberties lobby and car manufacturers.

A crude form of electronic tag was being tested in Hong Kong in the 1980s, but quickly withdrawn because, it is said, the tags allowed the authorities to know where a car was, and too many people were being found in the red light district.

Professor Hills said that transponders would be used in tandem with smart cards, which, like a telephone card, could be used anonymously.