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Joined up thinking

Ever since the Romans, building more roads has been the solution to increasing the capacity of the highway network. And that mantra has
held society in pretty good stead – and lined the pockets of plenty of engineering firms – for hundreds of years. Until now.

The government, Highways England and civil engineers alike have realised that building our way out of capacity problems has a limited shelf life.

Now, the solution to increasing capacity is technology.

Just as Network Rail is aiming to increase rail capacity through digital signalling systems and automated train control, Highways England is  looking to operate a “connected roads” system of motorways where road and car communicate with one another.

In a first-of-its-kind deal, Costain has been awarded a deal by Highways England to deliver roadside technology on the A2/M2 corridor between London and Dover. The contractor will work with the roads operator, the Department for Transport, Kent County Council and Transport for London to design, install and implement the connected vehicle corridor.

Trial vehicles will be fitted with onboard technology to communicate with roadside units via 5G wireless systems. Information about things such as road works, traffic conditions, temporary speed limits and time remaining before a traffic light turns to green will be sent to these vehicles. In return the vehicles’ speed and even carbon emissions could be tracked remotely.

Phase one of the project is due to begin this November, initially covering a 4km stretch of road, before a test on a 19km section takes place next spring. Subject to a successful review of this phase, a 55km trial will be undertaken in 2020. The entire London to Dover A2/M2 corridor could be using the connected technology by the summer of 2020.

"This technology is a test bed which can act as a stepping stone towards autonomous vehicles becoming a safe reality"

Costain managing director of infrastructure Darren James says the trial demonstrates the need for a new “diversity of thought” to be developed. “We think that fundamentally infrastructure projects are going to have more and more technology at the heart of them,” he says. “We can’t continue to build our way out of infrastructure problems. “Improving reliability and capacity is a massive opportunity for technology to help improve the way we operate.

“This technology is a test bed which can act as a stepping stone towards autonomous vehicles becoming a safe reality. “While that is still a long way off, the ability to communicate and gather data from and between the road and the car paves the way for future modes of transport to work more efficiently.”

He adds: “That is why we want to centre ourselves as the best technology savvy engineering firm. We are not afraid to take a lead on this. “If I look at my time in the industry, I have seen a significant shift in terms of the skillset that we have at Costain and in terms of what is needed.

“What the technology has enabled is a diversity of thought which is quite exciting to see in action.” James’ words echo sentiments laid down by Costain chief executive Andrew Wyllie who last month explained that his firm is seeking a new type of civil engineer as it transforms itself for the digital age.

Wyllie said recruits must demonstrate a “wider skill set” as the firm sets about turning itself into a smart infrastructure specialist to meet customer demand. He said: “We are developing a strong team at Costain. We have to provide a range of services to our customers – advisory, consulting, project delivery, operations and maintenance. Customers are looking for an integrated offering.

“We are taking on lots and lots of civil engineers, but they are involved in a much broader range of activities. We are looking for a civil engineer with a broader range of skills.” The blurring of the lines between technology and engineering is there to be seen in the companies involved on the A2/M2 job.

"The future of infrastructure projects will be a mix of technology firms and engineers and that will benefit everyone"

Costain will work with traditional construction firms and consultants such as Mott MacDonald, 4way Consulting and transport research body TRL. However the likes of technology firms Kapsch TrafficCom, Altran and Cohda Wireless, Telent Technology Services and Telefonica are also involved with the trials, creating the diversity of thought James refers to.

And while some may view the increased presence of technology firms as a threat to the industry, James says that collaboration between traditional IT firms and engineering companies is key to ensuring future success for the country’s infrastructure.

“Technology firms being interested in the infrastructure sector doesn’t mean that they want to do this on their own. In fact, it is quite the opposite,” he says. “Technology companies need us as much as we embrace them. They need our expertise in rolling out their technology. They don’t have the trusted relationships with industry bodies such as Highways England that we do.

“The future of infrastructure projects will be a mix of technology firms and engineers and that will benefit everyone.”

The A2/M2 project is part of the Interoperable Corridors Initiative, under which the UK is partnering with the Netherlands, France and Belgium. Highways England safety, engineering and standards executive director Mike Wilson is driving it from the UK perspective and has high hopes. “Having the technology in place to allow vehicles to connect to each other and the road around them has the potential to improve journeys, making them safer and more reliable by providing real-time, personalised information directly to the driver. It could also help us manage traffic and respond to incidents,” he says “The A2/M2 trial will test and demonstrate how this may work in the real world.”


This article was first published in New Civil Engineer