Knocking down the fence between automotive and roads

13 April 2021

Until recently, the only connection between my roads world and the automotive world was (usually) four rubber things made by Michelin. There was a real “fence” between the two neighbours –civil engineers like me who built roads and increasingly advanced IT systems for managing them, and mechanical and electrical engineers who built vehicles that use them.

There really wasn’t much of a need to understand each other in detail, beyond interfaces like tarmac, road signs and safety. But that is changing. The fence is slowly being broken – and needs to be removed completely – because of data.

Data from a vehicle can be of great value in managing a road- where vehicles come from and go to, their weight, where they park, if their airbag goes off in an accident, that their suspension found a pothole or their white line following camera, erm, didn’t find one.

Equally us roads peeps can give vehicles and users value too – Where there are parking spaces, the ability to pay inside the vehicle, warnings of problems such as roadworks, and increasingly emissions charges (and one day charges for driving by the mile – we already do this for trucks widely in Europe). We set rules of the road (weight, height and speed limits) and increasingly are in a digital world, gradually turning paperwork into data that others can read.

To date, the joining has been a neighbourly peek over the garden fence, seeing what the other has on show. But large-scale electrification, and policies that follow in mobility, mean we have to knock down that fence completely.

Electric vehicles without connectivity aren’t a great user experience – where is the charge point? Does it work? Will it charge my particular EV? What are the roads like on my route? Will I get there with my charge? How do I pay for the bit when my vehicle is charged up but still left at the same point? (we call it “parking”) etc, etc.

No connectivity equals EV stress. Roads and automotive have to come together for EVs to work better.

This needs mindset changes. Firstly, OEMs need to realise that road engineers deal with many types of vehicles and road users, from pedestrians through older vehicles to their new products. We can’t always deploy on roads something that works just for new vehicles, as there isn’t the business case – this is why beacon-based communications haven’t taken off and why cellular will dominate.Automotive needs to remember the average age of a UK vehicle is nine years and rising. This is why EVs offer a great “reboot” for both sides of the fence, as we have to support them even though they are new.

Road engineers need to fully grab the scale of automotive and their supply chain – data from one car park in a city is not going to interest a global OEM. But providing that data to someone else will create scale and coverage across a nation that will attract OEMs. A few local charge points’ availability may not seem much locally, but added together across a nation it would massively improve the user experience. We need to open up our data in a format that others can use, and at automotive quality.

An area we both need to work on is data skills – we are both behind the curve in what we do with data from roads and vehicles, and it’s a common skills shortage. Maybe data people can span both worlds…. and help remove the fence.

Andy Graham is principal of White Willow Consulting. As chair of the ITS-UK Connected Vehicles
Forum, and a committed petrolhead, he is passionate about connecting roads and automotive, and
is working with Y-mobility on projects to break down the fence.

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