The Fatal Issue With Smart Motorways

20-09-2022 | By Robin Mitchell

As large portions of the M3 undergo smart motorway conversion, there is a fatal issue facing smart motorways that aren’t being solved. Why are smart motorways being introduced, what is the fatal issue they face, and why would solutions to this potentially invade privacy?

Why are smart motorways being introduced?

As technology advances, engineers seem to find all kinds of reasons to integrate it into every aspect of life. Two decades ago, the internet was something option in our lives; emails were convenient but not the sole form of communication and computers found themselves to be exceptionally helpful for office tasks such as word processing and spreadsheets. Fast forward to 2022, and it would seem that without an internet connection, life is simply impossible; even some toasters have been sold with IoT functionality (who knows why but soon you won’t be able to make toast without a subscription).

The same mindset seems to have plagued National Highways, who are now working on upgrading UK motorways into “Smart” motorways. The idea behind this upgrade is to convert the hard shoulder (the far most left lane that is only allowed for breakdowns) into an adaptable lane that can be used for normal traffic. If a vehicle breaks down, it is moved into this left lane, the incident is reported, and IoT technologies allow network operators to shut the lane off by flashing a sign above the lane. Traffic is also monitored remotely from control stations that can be used to identify potential issues, and operators can direct traffic and adjust speed limits if needed. 

The fundamental reason for removing the hard shoulder is to ease congestion by creating another lane, but there are numerous reasons why this is not a good idea. By far, the simplest reason is that someone breaking down in the far left lane can still be hit by a speeding vehicle should they not see the closure signs, whereas the hard shoulder provides an absolute no-go lane for drivers (anyone in this lane is asking to be arrested by police very quickly).

The second reason why adding lanes doesn’t help is because increasing capacity encourages more to drive, and this capacity is quickly used up. This is commonly found in quickly growing cities that would otherwise be better serviced by high-speed public transport lines but instead try to add more highways (see the US for this).

Thirdly, drivers who appreciate the hard shoulder and understand its benefits outright refuse to drive in the far most left lane (myself included). A recent report on driving habits has revealed that 73% of drivers avoid driving in the newly opened left lanes out of fear of hitting a broken-down vehicle. Simply put, anyone driving in the left lane now realises that there is a chance of a broken-down vehicle in their path. 

The fatal issue of smart motorways – Latency

By far, the biggest issue facing smart motorways is their serious latency issue. The time between someone breaking down, pulling into the left lane, turning on warning lights, calling the operator, and then closing the lane is far too long. In fact, a lane being shut off immediately won’t see vehicles close by moving across as they may have passed the last sign before approaching the broken down vehicle. Furthermore, those who spot the vehicle broken down have to move across into the next lane, which can also lead to collisions with faster oncoming traffic.

The advantage of the hard shoulder is that it doesn’t matter when or where a vehicle breakdowns; the moment it pulls into the hard shoulder, the only collision risk it faces is if a dangerous driver is speeding on the hard shoulder (something that is extremely rare). But since smart motorways open the hard shoulder up, those who break down rely entirely on the speed at which network operators can respond and hope that a perfectly legal driver in the left lane will spot the vehicle and move across.

In order to fix this challenge, every vehicle on the road would need to install some kind of tracking technology that activates in the event of a breakdown. Not only would network operators immediately detect breakdowns, but they could also identify the vehicle’s exact location. By not having such technology installed in vehicles, there is a serious disconnect between the vehicles on the road and network operators trying to find broken-down vehicles.

Why would such a solution invade privacy?

Having tracking technologies in vehicles could provide users with immense amounts of functionality, including advanced collision avoidance, optimal route planning, traffic light coordination, and breakdown recovery. However, sharing one’s location in real-time with other nearby vehicles and services is about as big brother as one can get.

Not only would such technologies allow authorities to keep a watchful eye on their citizens, but it is also open up for abuse. Considering that any and all government-run services often lack basic security measures, it is likely that hackers will exploit such tracking services to monitor individuals of interest. Tracking individuals not only allows hackers to identify what shops and services individuals use but can also be leveraged to access personal accounts, including banking and shopping. 

Furthermore, those who may have access to valuable assets (such as expensive cars and homes) could be identified via such tracking, increasing the risk of targeted crimes. In fact, there are numerous reports of hackers utilising Apple AirTags to track expensive vehicles. Such data could even be sold to professional thieves, and this creates a barrier between those stealing a vehicle and the victim (i.e. no direct link between the two). 

Overall, smart motorways simply don’t work because individual vehicles cannot be tracked. Even if vehicles integrate tracking devices to help improve smart motorways, this use of tracking technology is simply not acceptable in a free society whereby individuals have the right to privacy.


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.