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By Ian Patey, Head of Profession Intelligent Transport, WSP in the UK

The gas light signals, installed in 1868, experienced mixed success but were short lived due to an explosion that injured a policeman. It wasn’t until 1925 when the next generation of traffic lights were installed in London and based on a system invented in the U.S. that used red, amber and green lanterns.  

This is a great example of engineers using experience from one sector (rail) to solve a problem in another (road) – in this case safety and congestion. Whilst the light source (from gas to electric) and method of control (from a person to automation) has evolved as new techniques have become available, the system has remained relatively unchanged for almost 100 years. The success of the signals still relies on drivers to understand and obey.

When the M6 Preston Bypass opened in 1958, safety and congestion didn’t need to be managed as there were too few cars and lorries to make them problems. The first use of technology on a motorway was developed in 1965 in response to crashes in foggy weather.  The “Motorwarn” signal had a simple design that provided a visual warning of fog ahead, and relied on drivers proceeding with more care and adapting to the conditions. As traffic increased across the motorways, technology was developed to improve safety and manage congestion – nowadays, technology is a familiar and expected sight on motorways.

The shift from purely building motorways and managing them as assets towards the operation of a transport network requires more sophisticated tools and technology. This resulted in what we now know as smart motorways. The development of smart motorways relied on learnings from other sectors – the operational safety governance and safe system approach has roots in both railway and aviation. It also relied on an understanding of the root causes of problems, and harnessing the power of a system that integrates people, process and technology. 

As we consider the potential impacts and opportunities that connectivity and automation in vehicles will bring, we can draw upon the lessons of the past to give us the best outcomes. It is all too tempting to get excited about the technology and then look for a problem that it could solve rather than to start with the problems and then see where the technology might make a difference. Let’s make sure we adapt and use techniques that have served us well so far.

We also need to think about the various trends, changes in demographics and retail habits that will follow disparate yet linked trajectories. The future is unknown, so we have an increasing need to focus on what we can do today with the future in mind while also accepting uncertainty and working with models and frameworks that can be adapted.

Scenario planning doesn’t need to be scary, but we will need to accept that there may be more than one version of what the future will look like. When we have grasped that concept, we can carry on using our immense talents in engineering, technology and science to enable the future to be a successful and enjoyable one.

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