The long read: Are ‘Google roads’ around the corner?


When we let go of the steering wheel – can we let go of roads?


Steve Birdsall, chief executive, Gaist



To say we live in a world of change is an enormous understatement, and to say that transport is changing would be an even bigger understatement.   Arguably, we are on the eve of the biggest transport revolution since the invention of the combustion engine, a revolution which will see the introduction of driverless vehicles and a fundamental shift in the ownership of vehicles for personal use.



Cars, trucks and buses are becoming increasingly sophisticated, equipped with new breeds of sensors and artificial intelligence software. But we are only at the very beginning: more advanced technology is just around the corner and breakthroughs in artificial intelligence will give rise to ultra-intelligent autonomous driving systems.  It is safe to assume that the relative cost of these new vehicles will be significantly higher than at present, making them unaffordable for many and far from cost effective for the average driver who currently uses his or her car for the daily commute and school run.



The RAC foundation recently estimated that the average car spends about 80% of the time parked at home and is parked elsewhere for about 16% of the time, and thus is only actually in use (i.e. moving) for the remaining 4% of the time.



Even by today’s standards, this low level of utilisation is not a good use of a depreciating asset but we have lived with this model of ownership for years and we appear to be grudgingly comfortable with the cost of ownership.



If the cost of the average car in the future is significantly higher, will we want to own our own cars? The special bond we have with our cars may break down because we will spend much less time actually connected to it through the action of driving it ourselves.



For many, the car will stop being a ‘prized possession’ and become a necessary utility to transport us from a to b; many  people  will be happy to release themselves from ownership and dependency upon a car parked outside to a situation where they call upon a car as and when they need it i.e. an ‘on demand’ service.



The history of technology has taught us that when a new technology or service emerges that saves us time, inconvenience and money it is quickly adopted en masse.



When we consider all these possibilities, we can clearly see that the stage is now set for ‘Cars as a Service’ whereby we can call or book a car that is the right size at the right time.



And it is likely that these cars will originate from massive fleets of cars that are operated by mega-corps who are sufficiently well capitalised to own and operate connected autonomous vehicles and manage them in such a way as to maximise their usage and thereby get the best return from their mobile and fixed assets.



And in many ways this should be celebrated.  Utilising cars in a service model in a highly automated, highly efficient way will be better for the environment, improve traffic flow and remove the millions of parked cars that clog our streets.



It will, hopefully, make using cars and trucks safer, more convenient and less expensive for us all. By reducing the cost of surface transport, goods will be moved around cheaper, improving productivity, reducing the cost and profitability for businesses and lowering prices paid by the consumer.



The new order



These potential new transport service providers are already emerging. Google and Uber have made no secret of their ambitions to stake a claim in this new operating model.  Even Dyson has announced its intention to be a player in the future of providing autonomous vehicles as a service.



Vast sums of money are now being invested in the race to have the most advanced vehicles and technology platforms that will be the first in line when ‘mass adoption’ finally begins. Many economists and technology gurus have foreseen the transition to future transport systems for years and much has been written about this new epoch. But how much have the actual roads been considered when prophesising how we will move around in this new connected and autonomous world?  Will our relationship with roads change too?



New operators – new compensation



Increasingly, society expect more from roads. There is hardly a day goes by without a headline relating to potholes and under-investment in the fabric of the highway network.



Millions of pounds in taxpayers’ money are paid out by local highways authorities every year to drivers who can prove that their vehicles have been damaged by potholes and other defects in the roads, particularly where the council has been proven to have failed in their responsibility to maintain the roads to the required condition. However, there are many motorists that, despite having sustained costly repair bills from defective roads, do not make a claim against the highway authority and pay the price themselves, which means the true cost of damage caused by sub-standard roads is not known.



How will this change when the cars are largely owned by large fleet operators?  The new service providers will be very conscious of anything that reduces the efficiency of their expensive assets and be able to very accurately calculate the cost, not only in terms of a repair, but the loss of revenue while the vehicle is out of service.



It is very likely that – in a similar operating model to that applied in the rail industry – the vehicle service providers will pay some form of road usage charge relating to how much or where and when they use the road infrastructure.



This will increase the obligation on the infrastructure operator to ensure the highway network is safe, fit for purpose and available to use, with a payment structure that will likely involve compensation payments if these conditions are not met.



Currently train operators receive a “schedule 8” payment from Network Rail when something goes wrong with the rail infrastructure, such as a points failure. The system is designed to compensate train operators for the impact of poor performance on their revenue. It is estimated that last year train operators received £107m from Network Rail as compensation for delays.



It is easy to predict that very large, cost conscious, commercial organisations will demand similar systems of compensation and they will have a very big advantage over the highway network operators – data, lots of data!



Lots of data



The vehicles of the future will not only be able to report in real-time when and where they sustained damage, but also they will be able to instantly provide imagery and sensor data as evidence that could be used to make a claim against the highway operator.  It will also be entirely possible to use sensor data to determine if the quality of the road surface is causing unnecessary wear and tear on the vehicle and therefore shortening its effective operating life. This could give rise to a new type of compensation from operators who fail to maintain the ‘optimal’ road surface.



This poses a fundamental question for highway authorities and other network operators – will the network be fit for the advent of connected and autonomous vehicles?



Roads for the future



Years of under-investment has led to a deteriorating road network and if this continues, our roads could become a huge financial liability and will prevent a sustainable new model of road charging coming into operation.



The UK Government has, rightly, made a very strong commitment to encouraging the development of connected and autonomous vehicles (CAVs) and has made available significant research funding to tech firms to ensure the UK leads in this field.  However, it should be recognised that the roads these vehicles will operate on also need significant funding and innovation if they are to facilitate the testing and roll-out of CAVs.



The highways industry needs to understand what lies ahead as a willing, or unwilling, stakeholder in the future of autonomous road transport.  The industry needs to be working alongside the new CAV tech providers to understand what is needed from the roads of the future.



For example, it is highly unlikely that the current road markings will serve the needs of autonomous driving systems and will have to be changed or upgraded with embedded sensors for instance, on an enormous scale.



Street lighting may also require evolution to cater for the needs of camera-based sensors, which may need to be supported by more effective artificial lighting in low light conditions to increase safety.



Highway authorities should also consider the amount of ‘near real-time’ data they could receive direct from the vehicles, vehicle operators and insurance companies as vehicles will have the ability to detect defects and constantly monitor the quality of the road surface. This data could easily be processed and used to make demands on the highways authorities for action and/or compensation.



This is a situation that needs to be avoided at all costs. Notwithstanding the cost of any legal action, compensation such as that for a sub-standard road would theoretically be payable to all the vehicle operators.  We only have to look at the payments being made by Network Rail, who own and operate a vastly smaller network, to gauge the huge amounts of taxpayers’ money that could be flowing to the vehicle operators in compensation.



However, as with all technology, if harnessed properly there are potential benefits to be had. If there is a close collaboration between the vehicle operators and the highways operators, new integrated systems could be developed that enable a much more responsive approach to handling defects as they arise and the vast amounts of data that is collected can be used to provide incredibly powerful analytics that predict the deterioration of roads and calculate the optimal maintenance regime.



Google Roads?



The fiscal model that is currently operated between train operating companies and the infrastructure owner (Network Rail) is not necessarily geared towards providing a better service for the passenger, but lessons can be learned that benefit the future road transport model.



This raises the question: ‘Who in the future who will make the best infrastructure owner?’



Could it be that it becomes more logical for the highway network to be operated by the same organisations that operate the vehicles?



For years now, the argument has been made that the disconnect between the train operating companies and Network Rail has led to unnecessary delays, disruption and cost. Even the Government has called for publicly-owned Network Rail to share responsibility for running the tracks with private train operators. Perhaps a future where the organisations that own the cars also operate the roads is a possibility, as it could be the most cost-effective and easiest situation to manage.  This will be anathema for many, but could bring about a rapid and radical reform of the network via new much needed investment from businesses that have huge capital reserves and ultimately result in in a totally integrated system of road transportation.



Organisations founded on technology will be well placed to roll out the in-road embedded sensors; mobile interfaces; intelligent transportation systems (ITS) and other assets that the autonomous vehicle fleets of the future will rely on.



Whichever way the future plays out for road transport, it is very clear that technology will change everything, as it always has, and those players that fail to use available technology and innovation to adapt to changing demands are the ones that ultimately fail.



Putting aside the immediate need to improve our network to increase safety and reduce risk, it is time now to look to the future and make the big investment decisions that will provide us all with a road network that will allow the UK to lead the world in the development of exciting new land transport systems, benefiting people, businesses and the environment.





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