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Save fuel, save the planet. The technology’s there – but will we fund it?

TSC Catapult CEO Paul Campion takes a look at how traffic lights could change the world. If only we’d let them.

Connected Vehicles are the future of travel. The technology that underpins this revolution in transportation is constantly opening up new and intriguing possibilities. We can now build cars that can receive information from traffic lights engineered to broadcast it, about when that light is going to turn green. Why would anyone want to know that? Maybe you’re thinking it’s because it allows the driver to put their foot down, knowing the light is about to turn in their favour. Actually, it’s just the opposite.

Knowing that the light is about to change means the driver (or the car itself, autonomously) can slow down, save fuel and time their arrival at the light perfectly, catching the so-called ‘green wave’. The result is traffic that keeps flowing, with much less stopping and starting. It’s that stopping and starting that burns the most fuel. It’s not unusual for fuel efficiency on free-flowing motorways to be double that of driving in town – and that’s all down to how much stopping and starting we do. So there are huge financial and environmental benefits to be gained from traffic lights that give us the nod on adjusting our speed to avoid that stop/start problem.

This type of thinking also lies behind the introduction of smart motorways. Slowing down individual drivers increases the overall capacity of the motorway, meaning everyone gets where they want to be faster. It’s counter-intuitive, because our human brains are conditioned to think that the quicker we go, the sooner we arrive, but in the case of motorways, that’s not always true.

So, we have all this technology and this information. But are we committed to using it? The numbers say we should. For example, when it comes to improving a busy motorway like the M1 or the M6, we could spend billions of pounds putting in an extra lane – a very costly option, not just financially, but in terms of upheaval and disruption.

Alternatively, we could use technology to create a smart motorway that has interactive speed signs to regulate traffic flow. That would take just 10% of the financial investment of an extra lane; yet deliver 80% of the benefits. We find it very hard, as individuals, to recognise these benefits when we’re driving on the motorway – we just want to go fast! So there’s a ‘political’ game at play – winning over hearts and minds to the new technology and, most important of all, figuring out how it gets financed.

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Photo Credit:Rote Ampel, Straßenverkehr in Hamburg, Deutschland

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