Smart Motorways – How “Smart” Tech Can Become a Disaster

25-06-2021 |   |  By Robin Mitchell

Smart Motorways are supposed to answer the increasing demand on British motorways, but the truth is that using Smart Technology is not always smart. So what are smart motorways, what problems have they encountered, and why has it taken an environmental lawsuit to halt implementation?

What are Smart Motorways?

Motorways are critical infrastructures that enable vehicles to easily and quickly move around from one side of a country to the other. Generally speaking, motorways connect major cities and ports to each other, while smaller towns and villages are connected to smaller roads such as dual carriageways. Since their introduction, technology has played an important role in motorways' function, such as providing live warnings, variable speed limits, and lane closure systems.

However, while such technology has existed on motorways since 1995, the term Smart Motorway has recently become popular due to a major change being introduced to motorways; opening the hard shoulder. Many motorways have a dedicated lane that cannot be used for regular traffic, and this lane (called the hard shoulder) is strictly for emergency use. So, for example, a car whose engine is failing or experiences a flat tyre can pull over into the hard shoulder to keep out of busy traffic and await assistance.

Smart Motorways instead use real-time traffic data and announcements to try and open the hard shoulder to regular traffic. This adds the benefit of providing a whole additional lane for easing congestion which reduces overall journey time and improves the air quality. For example, a driver who requires the use of the hard shoulder as an emergency breakdown lane pulls into the hard shoulder lane, calls the police about the incident, and controllers will then indicate to all drivers on the motorway about the closure with the use of large LED displays over the motorway.


What problems do Smart Motorways introduce?

For anyone who has actually driven on a motorway, opening up the hard shoulder is akin to removing the safety guards and mechanisms on a table saw or blender. So while enabling the hard shoulder for regular traffic may seem like a good idea, the hard shoulder is there for a reason. 

The logic behind opening the hard shoulder to traffic is that modern technology allows for real-time changes to the road system. As soon as an accident or breakdown occurs, internet technologies will allow operators to make changes with immediate effect. However, this logic is deeply flawed; humans rarely do as they are told.

Anyone who has driven on a motorway knows the maximum speed is 70mph, but in reality, most drive around 80mph, and those in the outermost lane will frequently do 90mph. Despite these high speeds, it is generally agreed that so long as everyone on the motorway does the same relative speed then accidents are far and few between. Unfortunately, however, while drivers on a road come to a consensus on the speed limit, it is often well over the legal speed limit. As such, tens of thousands break speed limit rules every day and happily ignore signs.

Smart motorways require users to follow the rules of the active signs, and many who have driven on smart motorways the number of times where it has set the speed limit to 50mph, and yet there are no accidents or incidences to be seen. Unfortunately, such incidences make drivers less likely to pay attention to the interactive signs, and this is where the problem starts.

There have been numerous cases of drivers pulling into the hard shoulder and requesting assistance which sees the lane closed off. However, drivers ignore the signs or don’t notice them, and these drivers collide into cars parked on the hard shoulder. While there have only been a handful of deaths (14 fatalities in 2019), all of these deaths directly result from using the hard shoulder as a lane.

Why Smart Technology is not Always Smart

The continuing advances in technology is seeing increased use of smart technologies such as AI and IoT in everyday life. While such technologies can help to improve the performance of a system, simply adding technology for the sake of adding technology is not always good. Like the case of Smart Motorways, supposedly smart technology can potentially make a system worse as a result of unexpected behaviour or unpredictable environments.

A fictitious example of how smart technologies can cause more harm than good would be a smart fire suppression system. Smart technology could be tied into each sprinkler system with relays and controls. The water supply is only turned on during a fire, and each sprinkler is individually controlled by a central system. However, while this system may be clever, it will most likely be less effective than a standard sprinkler system where all sprinkler systems engage that does not use smart technologies. 

A real-life example of how smart technologies are causing harm is the use of auto-driving systems being deployed in cars such as in Tesla vehicles. While these systems are clever, they are also being heavily abused due to misinformed customers, and the result of the autopilot feature is customers losing their lives.

Overall, engineers should consider when deploying smart technologies and ask themselves if advanced technology is essential in their application.


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By Robin Mitchell

Robin Mitchell is an electronic engineer who has been involved in electronics since the age of 13. After completing a BEng at the University of Warwick, Robin moved into the field of online content creation developing articles, news pieces, and projects aimed at professionals and makers alike. Currently, Robin runs a small electronics business, MitchElectronics, which produces educational kits and resources.

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