What are smart motorways and how do they work?

Smart motorway technology is deployed to actively manage traffic flows and optimise the motorway network. Stuart Wilson, Technical Director at Jacobs, explains the types of smart motorway technology and how they are used to achieve operational outcomes.

Smart motorway technology allows traffic flow to be actively managed, for example by imposing a temporary speed limit (image courtesy of Highways England Flickr account)
Smart motorway technology allows traffic flow to be actively managed, for example by imposing a temporary speed limit (image courtesy of Highways England Flickr account)
  • Updated: 09 August, 2016
  • Author: Stuart Wilson – Technical Director, Transport Technology, Jacobs

What is a Smart Motorway?

A Smart Motorway is defined as a concept that utilises technologies and procedures to monitor and respond to fluctuating traffic conditions on our motorways. Smart Motorways which are being currently designed and installed have evolved from several years of feedback, lessons learnt and improvements since their first deployment on the M42 motorway in 2006.

Why do we need Smart Motorways?

According to several studies the financial impacts of congestion on the strategic road network is estimated to cost £2 billion per year, an amount likely to increase further due to the predicted traffic growth up to 2035. The key aim of Smart Motorways is to reduce congestion and improve journey times by better managing the traffic using roadside technology infrastructure, associated control centres, systems and operational regimes.

Smart Motorways support the economy by providing much needed capacity on the busiest motorways, while maintaining safety for motorists and those who work on the roads.

Other benefits of differing types of Smart Motorway operational regimes have included reductions in accidents and reduced impacts on the environment associated with emissions from stationary or slow moving vehicles.

How does a Smart Motorway work?

Smart Motorways function by adopting various operational regimes to meet scheme operational requirements including:

Controlled Motorway

Variable Mandatory Speed Limits (courtesy of Highways England Smart Motorways material)
Image courtesy of Highways England Flickr account.

Variable Mandatory Speed Limits are applied to all types of Smart Motorways. A Mandatory Speed Restriction refers to the uses of a red ring speed restriction which is legally enforceable.

Traffic conditions are monitored using vehicle detection equipment installed in or adjacent to the motorway at strategic locations. The vehicle detection equipment is linked to a Motorway Incident Detection and Automatic Signalling (MIDAS) system which analyses the data and recognises two differing traffic conditions – Queuing Traffic or Congestion.

Queue Protection and Congestion Monitoring algorithms within the MIDAS system recognise differing traffic conditions and automatically set appropriate signs and mandatory speed restrictions on signals to actively manage traffic conditions. Safety specific intervention is provided by the Queue Protection algorithm which protects the back of queueing traffic and Congestion is managed by introducing reduced speed limits to increase traffic throughput.

Hard Shoulder Running (HSR)

Hard Shoulder Running (courtesy of Highways England Smart Motorways material)
Image courtesy of Highways England Flickr account.

Hard Shoulder Running uses the same systems, algorithms and mandatory signal settings as the Controlled Motorway operational regime in addition to actively managing the hard shoulder. This operational regime dynamically opens and closes the hard shoulder at peak periods to reduce congestion and increase capacity. This operational regime allows differing levels of automatic and manual intervention dependent on the traffic conditions.

All Lane Running (ALR)

All Lane Running (ALR) (courtesy of Highways England Smart Motorways material)
Image courtesy of Highways England Flickr account.

Following lessons learnt, feedback, driver surveys and simulations, the Smart Motorways All Lanes Running concept was introduced. All Lanes Running schemes permanently convert the hard shoulder into an additional running lane whilst operating with all of the features, systems and signalling associated with Controlled Motorway schemes.

What types of technology are used, and what do they do?

Message Signs and Signals

Message signs are used to provide information to motorists in relation to the road conditions ahead. Where they are not co-located with individual signals some types of signs can also display Variable Mandatory Speed Limits. Signals display mandatory variable speed limits above carriageway lanes and can also be used to open or close any of the lanes, including the hard shoulder.

Closed Circuit Television (CCTV) Cameras

Comprehensive CCTV coverage is provided within Smart Motorways schemes to allow operation of the scheme. Different types of cameras include:

  • Pan, Tilt Zoom (PTZ) CCTV Cameras – provide comprehensive coverage of the scheme to allow operators within the control centre to monitor the extents of a scheme.
  • Hard Shoulder Monitoring (HSM) Cameras – Hard Shoulder Running schemes require 100% coverage of the hard shoulder which allows an operator to ensure it is completely clear of breakdowns or debris prior to dynamically opening the hard shoulder.

Vehicle Detection

In order to understand traffic conditions (such as speed and flow) the MIDAS system gathers traffic data from vehicle detector sites which are positioned at strategic points along the motorway network. There are two main types of detectors deployed within Smart Motorway schemes:

  • Inductive Loops – the traditional form of vehicle detection on motorways. They are cut into the road surface and measure the change in inductance as a vehicle travels across them to determine vehicle speed and traffic flow.
  • Radar Vehicle Detection – used increasingly to gather traffic parameters. They are positioned on poles adjacent to the carriageway, reducing construction requirements, removing the requirement for complex traffic management during loop cutting and also reducing ongoing maintenance requirements.

Variable Mandatory Speed Limit Enforcement

Variable Mandatory Speed Limit Enforcement (courtesy of Highways England Smart Motorways material)

To ensure motorist compliance and to realise scheme operational benefits, Highways Agency Digital Enforcement Camera System (HADECS) equipment is installed within Smart Motorways. The latest cameras can monitor all lanes of traffic simultaneously and adjust the thresholds at which they capture offences to align with the varying speed restrictions.

About the Author

Stuart Wilson ([email protected]) is a Technical Director within the Jacobs Transport Technology team specialising in Intelligent Transport Systems (ITS) and Smart Motorways. He is based in Stockton-on-Tees office and is currently undertaking a lead role in the design of several Smart Motorways.

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