Motorway graphic showing technology management

How to... cut traffic jams

Traffic congestion is the bane of modern motorists, but mobile communications may soon be supplying the answer for the beleaguered commuter.

The problems caused by the burgeoning number of cars on the road are all too apparent to anyone that frequents the country’s major thoroughfares. The result is increased congestion, longer journey times and greater frustration. For individuals this is simply a fact of life that needs to be accepted, but for businesses and commercial road users the delays carry financial penalties.It has been estimated that traffic congestion costs UK business £20bn every year, a figure that is set to rise to £32bn by 2025. By the same time it is estimated that it will take drivers about a third longer to travel every mile, clearly an unsustainable proposal.

With over a billion private cars on the roads around the world it is difficult to see this situation improving without new technology. Continued road building, widening and improvements will only go so far, what is required is better traffic management together with a joined up approach to public transportation.

It is hard to find empirical statistics on traffic congestion but one source of information comes from Shell. Since 1979 the petroleum giant has been publishing passenger car studies on the German automotive market with studies on long-term trends and developments.

Heavy traffic

Germany’s road network, comprising some 645,000km, is one of the most extensive worldwide. The total main road network includes 12,600km of motorways and more than 40,000km of national roads, making up one of the most closely meshed networks of strategic roads in Europe.

About half the annual mileage in Germany is done on the national road network, although it accounts for only about a quarter of all main roads. The motorways take an even more prominent position, comprising about 5.5 per cent of the main road network, but carrying nearly a third of passenger car mileage.

Further increases in traffic density and volume on the trunk roads would reduce the quality of travel unless transport policy measures are taken to counteract that.

“The transport intensity of motorised individual transport [passenger car mileage in relation to GDP] will continue to go down; but the demand for auto-mobility will continue to be high, with increasing car ownership,” the report says. “That is shown by the persistent and largely inelastic demand for auto-mobility.

“In addition, today’s housing trends and regional development trends will continue. Intermodality and a shift from passenger car to other forms of land transport may help to relieve the burden on the roads in well-structured conurbations, but that in itself will not be enough to meet the future demand for personal mobility in Germany.”

Back in the UK a report published in early December by the RAC Foundation found little evidence of ‘peak car’ – the situation in which there is no increase over a sustained period of time (and in some cases a decline) in average car mileage per person, even during periods of economic growth. Once company car mileage was excluded, those aged 30 and over outside London actually increased their car travel right up to the 2007 recession. This group accounts for 70 per cent of the British adult population.

“This state of the nation report on how we get about reveals we overwhelmingly remain a country of car drivers,” Professor Stephen Glaister, director of the RAC Foundation, says. “Strikingly it is women who are increasingly behind the wheel. This is a reflection of their growing social and financial independence over recent decades.

“The big question is: what will happen with young men? Will they take up driving as they age and their domestic and financial circumstances change, or will they go their whole lives without feeling the need to get a car?”

Prof Glaister continues: “There has been much talk of ‘peak car’ – the idea that individual car use has reached a plateau – but strip out the one-off impact of a collapse in company car mileage and prior to the recession we were actually driving more. Let’s not forget about population growth. An extra ten million people are predicted for the UK over couple of decades and whatever we do individually will be dwarfed by the travel needs of these extra people.

“We must recognise that future transport demand will vary by time, place and demography. Every one of us has different transport needs and a simple one-size-fits-all approach will not work.”

The managed motorway

One of the UK Highway Agency’s prime traffic easing measures is what it dubs the managed motorway. “One of our main technologies is managed motorways,” Alex Barnett, spokesman for the Highway Agencies explains. “The idea is that we can control traffic flows more effectively through the use of new technologies such as overhead gantries, lane specific signals, and driver information signs. They also have the added benefit of limiting the number of traditional road-widening schemes.”

It is six years since the first managed motorway opened – the M42 J3a-J7 – and it has proven to be a great success. A report released last year by the Highways Agency showed that personal injury accidents on this stretch of road have reduced by more than half and there had been no fatalities.

“Alongside the technical data are high levels of customer satisfaction, with 68 per cent of surveyed road users saying they felt more informed during their journeys and 60 per cent stating they would welcome this type of traffic management elsewhere on our network,” Barnett adds.

There are two main components to the system, variable speed limits and hard shoulder running. The notion is that variable speed limits keep traffic flowing by regulating the speed of traffic when there is congestion by avoiding the concertina effect. By the same token where there is hard shoulder running it allows increased capacity for a given road during busy times.

Traffic monitoring

The Highways Agency collects traffic information using number plate recognition cameras sited on fixed towers along key parts of the trunk road network, this information is used to set variable speed limits and display travel times on motorway signage.

However, such a fixed infrastructure can only deliver so much information. To get a more dynamic picture of traffic movements and journeys times a much more dynamic system is required. The answer is to use the mobile phone signals that the majority of road users carry with them, a strategy adopted by most sat nav manufacturers, including TomTom.

“For the past four or five years we have had dynamic navigation,” Nick Cohn, senior business developer in the traffic unit at TomTom says. “This means navigation on smartphones, but also on navigation devices, that looks at what is happening on the road network in terms of traffic and delays in real-time and then looks at your destination and offers you an alternative route based on the shortest travel time. That is essentially our navigation with the added real-time traffic.”

Cohn adds: “The reading algorithm looks at that real-time information and gives the fastest route for those circumstances.”

The algorithm starts with the GPS location of the driver and the destination that is entered into the system. It then locates the destination on the map, which is either part of the navigation device or smartphone, calculates the fastest route by consulting historical data embedded in the map for the day and time, which forms part of a congestion index. In addition to this is calculated real-time traffic service information, so it can consider whether there is a faster route at that moment to that destination.

“The driver has different options,” Cohn explains. “The algorithm will look for the fastest route, but the driver can say ‘always keep me on my original route whatever the driving conditions are’, or ‘always change me to the fastest route’, or ‘give me the option to click on my screen to choose the fastest route given the real-time information’. The default setting is essentially providing the option of a faster route, but what the navigation will do is say there is a faster route to your destination which will save you ‘x’ number of minutes. So it will provide the driver with three minutes faster or five minutes faster.”

Live commentary

TomTom use different sources for their live traffic information to the Highways Agency. “We start with information from all of our collective customers, customers who are using our real-time navigation,” Cohn explains. “Their units send real-time GPS speeds to us and we put that in our data fusion, which is updated every minute.

“Then we also add in information from mobile services, from people who have their mobile phones with them while travelling, we capture and include that in our data fusion. We also have some information from commercial vehicles that are providing speeds real-time and we combine all of that.”

Cohn continues: “Probably the most important information that we get from Public Authorities is road closures and accidents. The delays we detect ourselves. So it means that we have coverage of more of the road network than public authorities in most other countries because they can’t put their detection systems everywhere; it’s too costly. We have information on local roads as well as motorways, which is important.”

TomTom has its own technology installed in eight countries in the Vodafone network, capturing data from mobile phones everywhere and linking those to road segments: technology that it developed and installed together with Vodafone and Vodafone Global Group in Western Europe.

In North America, the company supply all the BlackBerry travel information in return for inputs from their devices on the move. “We’re not limited to where there might be a Bluetooth detector, it is essentially everywhere that these handsets might be moving around so we can use that speed information,” Cohn says.

He is quick to point out, however, that all the information is encoded before it reaches their database so there is no method by which they can trace an individual number. “We wouldn’t want to do that anyway,” Cohn says. “Privacy protection is very important to us.”

The connected car

One step on from this amalgamation of mobile data is the true connected car, something that the automotive industry is working towards.

It is planned that every car will carry embedded telematics that will enable it to communicate with other cars and provide real-time information. “We are working with a number of car manufacturers, also on the connective side,” Cohn says. “I think that, several years ago, our first cooperation with Renault was the first mass-production commercially available connective car system in Europe in terms of large numbers of in-dash systems that are connected to retrieve real-time traffic information and to provide input to that real-time traffic information. We work with a number of automotive OEMs and we are certainly very actively involved in their efforts to provide new services and safety by connecting vehicles.”

Another step change for automotive navigation has come from outside the sector, namely the cloud. “If you don’t have to download all of the data, download all of the applications and the maps and you can let the processing happen somewhere else, that should in theory provide faster processing and easier use of the services and information,” Cohn continues.

“That is certainly a trend that is going on right now, especially with smartphones because they can do a lot very quickly, but it becomes cumbersome when you have to download updates all the time and you have to wait for your smartphone to do something – nobody wants to do that. In terms of producing faster processing, better, easier to use services, there is more and more happening off board or in the cloud.”

He adds: “There are so many more services and improvements to driving information that is possible with connective vehicles and part of it is having service from the cloud and having vehicles being able to do over the air updates at any time, as opposed to some kind of cumbersome update where you have to wait for data to be transferred.

“More and more is possible as the car is connected internally in the vehicle, not only information coming from outside but vehicle information, for example road conditions could be captured from the vehicle’s computer and provided to other drivers on the road. Say for instance you are driving along and you get a warning saying that three miles down the road from you there is ice that has been detected by other vehicles that are driving ahead of you, those kinds of safety warnings will come in quite quickly.”

Cohn goes on: “All that connectivity outside the vehicle, as well as in between its systems themselves and the outside communication, make all kinds of safety applications and handy driver applications possible.”

There is one downside to all this real-time information. The ability to manage traffic more effectively in a dynamic manner will, in effect, add more capacity to the road network and in theory reduce journey times to such an extent that it may convince drivers to abandon public transport and return to the roads. “It’s going to be very difficult to prove that in any real-world situation, but there are certainly a number of studies showing how it works on an individual level,” Cohn concludes. But for the under pressure road users of today, any improvement will be extremely welcome.

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