Does smart motorway tech need a revamp in 2023?

Does smart motorway tech need a revamp in 2023?

Whether you plan to drive your own vehicles entirely this year, or you’re planning to hire a car or van from us here at Intack Self Drive, at some point in the next twelve months there’s a decent chance that you’ll end up driving on a smart motorway. They’ve been a fact of life for UK motorists for years now, far longer than lots of people realise (the first one opened all the way back in 2006!).

Just because they’re ubiquitous though, that doesn’t necessarily mean that motorists are comfortable with them. The controversy surrounding their rollout has by now been well documented, and there are now renewed calls for the government to address the most pressing dangers. Some people are even calling for smart motorways to be scrapped entirely. Here, we’ll take a quick look at some of the key reasons why. First though, let’s start with a quick recap.

What is a smart motorway?

Essentially, it’s a type of motorway that relies on technology to manage traffic flow. All smart motorways use overhead gantries to communicate key messages to drivers, such as changing speed limits, or upcoming hazards. A red X is typically used to indicate that a lane is closed, for example.

There are three main types of smart motorways:

  • Controlled – these have a permanent hard shoulder, but also use technology such as variable speed limits to regulate traffic flows.
  • Dynamic – here, the hard shoulder can be opened up at peak times (such as rush hour) to be used as an extra lane. In these cases, the speed limit is reduced to 60mph. 
  • All lane running – these types of smart motorways do not have a hard shoulder. Instead, it’s been permanently removed to provide an extra lane. In its place, there are emergency refuge areas at regular intervals to provide a safe place for any cars that get into trouble.

All three types of smart motorways are built with one key aim in mind – namely, to cut down on congestion and large-scale traffic jams. Not only are these irritating for drivers, but they’re also highly polluting and inefficient, and dangerous for drivers joining the back of the queue, as everyone suddenly has to decelerate to a stop in a relatively short period of time.

At the outset of 2021, there were 396 miles of smart motorways in England, including 168 miles without a hard shoulder. In fact, at one point the government had hoped that All Lane Running motorways would become the default throughout the UK. But its priorities have changed since then.

What are the key issues with smart motorways?

In the eyes of their critics, smart motorways have a range of numerous interlocking issues, but they can mainly be grouped into two main problems – firstly the infrastructure’­s ability to detect breakdowns, and secondly the number of near-misses, injuries, and deaths.

Increased fatalities on smart motorways

This is obviously the one that’s gained the most attention. Put simply, the question on everyone’s lips is: are smart motorways safe?

And there are a lot of people who would confidently answer: no. According to one study, live lane fatality rates were more than a third higher on ALR motorways than they were on conventional motorways in 2018. Quite simply, drivers in trouble are increasingly finding that without a hard shoulder, when they break down there’s simply no safe place to stop. That can put them at serious risk of being struck by other drivers – and at motorway speeds, those sorts of collisions are frequently fatal.

False detections of drivers in distress

The whole point of having traffic management software in place is that one of its central goals is to keep drivers safe. Unfortunately, right now these systems are not always up to scratch, and that’s neatly encapsulated by the issues surrounding Stopped Vehicle Detection technology.

Basically SVD is a radar-based technology that’s present on every All Lane Running motorway, and has been since September 2022. Its job is to spot drivers who have broken down on smart motorways, and take action accordingly – slowing traffic as best it can around that area, and notifying human operators.

Unfortunately, the actual performance of that technology has been falling well short of its required standards. False detection rates (essentially, the system crying wolf) are several times over their required maximum. False detections are supposed to be no more than 15% of the total number of detections, but in some regions of England they’re as high as 63%, whereas others are even higher at a staggering 83%.

Nicholas Lyes, the RAC’s head of road policy, perhaps put it best: “Breaking down in a live lane is terrifying enough but drivers must have confidence that the infrastructure is detecting them quickly so authorities can immediately close the lane.”

So, what can we expect in 2023?

The problem the government faces now is something of a sunk cost fallacy.

Essentially, it’s spent millions transforming the UK’s roads, and there’s now no easy way back. When Grant Shapps was Minister for Transport, he told Parliament that: “it would require the equivalent land of 700 Wembley stadium-sized football pitches to somehow undo all this. We’d have to buy people’s homes, to destroy acres of green belt. I don’t see there’s a route through simply undoing. We’ve got to make what is there safe.”

Even so, the government is under huge pressure to act. It’s now been a year since it was forced to pause the development of smart motorways altogether, until at least 2025 – as it needs five years’ worth of safety data to make a proper decision on how to proceed.

In the meantime, research from the RAC shows that drivers are far from confident. A majority of drivers want ALR motorways scrapped entirely, in favour of dynamic smart motorways, where the hard shoulder can be open and closed as required.

Labour wants them abolished too, and more than one coroner has already indicated that they believe the government shares at least some of the blame for certain people who’ve died on smart motorways. Even the minister who originally commissioned them, Sir Mike Penning, now says that he was “misled” and they “should never have happened”.

So there’s no doubt that the government needs to take urgent action. The only question is when and how they’ll act. We’ll find out the answers to those questions later on this year.

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