The technology behind the smart motorway

If you’ve ever driven between any of our major UK cities, you are likely to have found yourself on a smart motorway at one point or another. These motorways can usually be recognised by their digital speed signs that adapt the speed limit based on current traffic conditions. Still, most drivers are unaware of the amount of technology that actually goes into monitoring and regulating the traffic flow behind the scenes. Let’s take a closer look at the smart motorway, how it works, and what we can learn from it.

What is a smart motorway?

All smart motorways are designed to reduce congestion and increase road capacity with the help of traffic management methods. There are three different types of smart motorways which work slightly differently to achieve improved results:

  • All Lane Running
    This is a scheme where the hard shoulder is removed and converted into ‘lane one’ – a regular running lane. Should an accident or blockage occur, this lane becomes closed and traffic is directed onto the other lanes. In case of an accident, there are a number of emergency refuge areas at the side of the road where vehicles can stop.
  • Controlled Motorway
    A controlled motorway has three or more lanes where variable speed limits apply, but like most traditional motorways it still has a hard shoulder. This is only to be used in a genuine emergency and never as a regular lane.
  • Hard Shoulder Running
    This scheme is one that allows the hard shoulder to be open as a running lane during peak traffic to reduce congestion. Drivers must rely on the overhead displays to indicate whether or not the hard shoulder is open for general use. If not open, this lane must only be used in case of emergency.

Variable speed limits

All smart motorways have overhead digital displays which show the current speed limit based on traffic conditions. Should no limit be displayed, the national speed limit applies. Any blocked or closed lanes are marked with a red ‘X’, which means the driver must leave that lane as soon as possible. The overhead gantries are usually fitted with speed cameras to enforce the speed limit, and a large number of CCTV cameras to monitor traffic and spot any incidents.

CCTV Cameras

First of all, let’s look at the cameras being used on the smart motorway. When it comes to CCTV cameras, there are two main types of coverage needed for different purposes – both of which are actively monitored in real-time from a traffic control centre.

  • Pan, Tilt and Zoom (PTZ) CCTV Cameras
    These cameras will cover a large portion of a smart motorway, but will also have the ability to move and shift their view focus to help the operator get a better view of a specific section or area when needed.
  • Hard Shoulder Monitoring (HSM) Cameras
    These are cameras covering 100% of the hard shoulder of a Hard Shoulder Running scheme. The operators watching the images must be able to ensure the hard shoulder is completely clear of any blockages before choosing to open it as a running lane.

MIDAS – The Vehicle Detection System

Another technology tool used on the smart motorway is the MIDAS system – ‘Motorway Incident Detection and Automatic Signalling’. This is a network of strategically placed vehicle detectors which enable automatic monitoring and tracking of traffic conditions. Traditionally, these have mainly been inductive loops embedded into the road surface, sensing the number of vehicles passing as well as their speed. Today, however, the more common method of vehicle detection uses radar equipment placed on poles next to the carriageway.

The MIDAS system collects traffic data from the vehicle detector sites and feeds this information into the display systems for variable speed limits. By detecting slow traffic ahead, the dynamic speed limit can allow drivers to maintain a set speed rather than get caught up in congestion.

What you can learn from smart motorways

As automation is becoming an increasingly important part of business management and operations, there are plenty of lessons to learn from the principles of the smart motorway. Which of these can you apply in your business?

  • Vary the ‘speed limit’
    Your business will have natural ebbs and flows throughout the year. By using analytics software you can track buyer behaviour over time and spot slow periods, then adjust your targets based on these factors. This will allow staff to feel less pressure when the odds are stacked against them.
  • Automate where possible
    By doing a thorough process analysis across the business, you will be able to spot activities which can be made simpler or even fully automated with the help of software. Just like the vehicle detectors on a motorway can trigger signals to drivers, set up software that triggers alerts to management when there’s a drop in service levels or productivity.
  • Be dynamic
    Work flexibility is often a key differentiator for employees. Take the time to identify where your ‘hard shoulders’ are in the business. Does a member of staff have multiple sets of skills? Consider allowing them to use that knowledge on specific projects for a limited time. Not only can this help the individual feel more valued, but it can save the business time and money. In some ways, the same principle applies for hardware and facilities. Do you have an area in the office that can be temporarily transformed into an innovation lab? Could you use a corridor for a product showcase? Or could your canteen double up as a training room? Be creative!

Software is key

As with the smart motorway, our businesses need to be underpinned by the right technology that helps us monitor and manage the daily flow of activity. Here at DCSL we see time and time again how software can transform an organisation’s ability to serve customers better, be more productive and have more knowledge of what goes on in every department.

This is how software is, and will continue to be, the difference between success and failure on this fast-moving motorway of business we’re all driving along!