Imagine a world where vehicles can ‘speak’ to each other about congestion, emissions, road accessibility and safety. They could warn of traffic jams, congestion, and warn off drivers when the risk of an accident could be high. It almost sounds like a road utopia, that is, in fact, not too distant a reality.

According to ERTICO, a not-for-profit association that represents the European intelligent transport systems (ITS) community, the third stage of ITS development which is being entered now could offer all this and more. Already, ITS has brought us navigation, route guidance, ramp metering systems and variable message signs. Connected systems, including telematics services (for example emergency calls), which enable information to be exchanged with a service centre have also come out of ITS.

But now, work is being done on cooperative vehicle-infrastructure systems (CVIS) that use data collected on traffic, road and environmental issues to help users make decisions about routes, while allowing network managers to detect and solve problems. CVIS is designed to develop and test the technologies that allow vehicles to communicate. Vincent Blevaque, director of development and deployment at ERTICO says he believes the application of such technology is promising and could, very well, lead to the development of numerous new and enhanced in-vehicle services for increased road safety and efficiency, and traveller convenience.

Such cooperative systems (known as smart vehicle communication systems) are based on wireless communication technology and allow cars to ‘talk’ to each other, while also cooperating directly with roadside infrastructure. This means that drivers can be warned about potential hazards, such as slippery roads and crashes. With more than 42,000 people dying in road traffic accidents in the EU in 2006 and 7,500km of traffic jams every day on the roads, it is easy to see why such technology is in demand.

While the technology is quite new, the ideas have been around for some time. “We were talking about it 15 years ago and now it’s really starting to happen,” Ian Catling, a consultant on intelligent transport systems, says. Although more involved now with electronic toll collection and road pricing to combat congestion, Catling was part of the PROMETHEUS programme back in 1986. PROMETHEUS, with its enormous $800m budget, was focused on every vehicle having an on-board computer and centralised communication network providing two-way communication between each vehicle and a control centre.

Radio frequency allocation

In recent years intelligent vehicle systems have been a major focus for R&D in Europe. In anticipation of this new technology finally being rolled out, the EU reserved part of the radio spectrum across Europe for smart vehicle communication systems. This decision is part of the intelligent car initiative that, as part of the EU’s i2010 information and communication technology (ICT) flagship initiatives, which looks at modernising all of the EU’s frameworks, aims to create ‘safer, smarter, cleaner’ vehicles.

As well as being a driver for creating less-congested roads and increasing efficiency, third-generation ITS systems can also save money. “With 24% of Europeans’ driving time spent in traffic jams the costs caused by congestion could reach €80bn by 2010,” says EU Telecoms Commissioner Viviane Reding. At the moment, however, third generation systems are still not developed to their full potential. Until some issues are resolved, full-scale deployment will not be possible.

“ITS has brought us navigation, route guidance, ramp metering systems and variable message signs.”

Pre-deployment challenges include issues relating to data access and technology integration. However, the reservation of the radio spectrum does signal that these challenges are likely to be addressed and, quite likely overcome. “We need technical harmonisation of cooperative mobility systems for in-vehicle systems and for roadside equipment,” ERTICO CEO Hermann Meyer says. “Thus, we are welcoming the recent European decision to allocate a radio spectrum frequency for connected vehicles services; lastly we need to have access to publicly-sourced data and at the same time address data protection and security issues.”

Current congestion solutions

According to the Department for Transport (DfT) report ‘Roads Delivering Choice and Reliability’, around a quarter of all congestion in the EU is caused by accidents and incidents such as collisions, broken-down vehicles or debris blocking carriageways. But one intelligent transport system already in use today is having a massive affect on this.

Global positioning system (GPS) equipment is now being used to survey and record details of accident sites and the average time saved (measured by how long the road is closed for) per incident is 40 minutes. The above report states that during one incident on the M11 in the UK, police were able to survey and collect enough data from an accident scene in ten minutes, where previously the road could have been closed for two hours.

ERTICO is heavily involved with a project called SAFESPOT, which is co-funded by the European Commission Information Society Technologies. It is looking at how intelligent vehicles and intelligent roads can cooperate to increase road safety. The technologies the study is looking at gives drivers a ‘safety margin assistant’ that detects potentially dangerous situations in advance and creates a greater awareness for the driver in their surrounding environment.

Hard shoulder running is another area that is currently being deployed. “This technology cuts journey times and helps keep motorways moving,” confirms a DfT Spokesperson. The successful trial, which took place on the UK’s M42 means that around 500 lane-miles of English motorway are now also being considered. According to UK Transport Secretary Ruth Kelly hard shoulder running is already proving it can provide a “smoother flow and more predictable journeys at a fraction of the cost of motorway widening.”

Pre-deployment challenges

But while the benefits seem quite obvious, the challenges associated with rolling out such technologies are still holding it back. ERTICO’s Myer says that after decades of researching and developing new technologies favourable conditions are still needed to deploy ITS solutions for road safety. “There is a need for an EU legislative framework in which creativity to develop intelligent transport systems can thrive and deployment is fast and effective,” Meyer says.

“Around a quarter of all congestion in the EU is caused by accidents and incidents such as collisions and breakdowns.”

And then there is always the issue of the next generation. With a 50% increase of freight on the roads predicted by 2010, Catling says the fourth generation could very well lie in cooperative systems between automated vehicles and road infrastructure: “for example, a motorway lane dedicated to trains of lorries that communicate and are controlled electronically.”

Blervaque also believes this vision is a possibility for the future. “By connecting vehicles together and with road infrastructure, cooperative systems will enable major innovative applications such as dynamic lane management and intersection priority management that will provide a concrete contribution to achieve this goal,” he says.

For now, however, the focus needs to remain firmly on third-generation systems. The effect of which, according to Blervaque, will have a “significant impact on freight mobility’ and take us one step closer to ERTICO’s vision of a network where, vehicles, travellers and infrastructure are in constant communication.”