Planning a Future Without Road Signs

During the last few years, a significant level of innovation has led to improvements in vehicle connectivity and the real possibility of “naked” highways, a term referring to the reduction or absence of highway signage.

In addition to vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2I) and vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) technology, vehicle-to-everything (V2X) connects to cellular infrastructure and the cloud and extends those benefits to others on the roadway. With dedicated short range communications (DSRC) and 5G serving as the backbone, V2X technologies are expected to have a big impact on the highways of the future, which is closer than we think.

In the UK, a report from Zenzic, an organization created by government and industry to lead the country in accelerating the self-driving revolution, details new initiatives well underway that aim to move away from traditional signage. The physical evolution and initial decommissioning of signs and signals in specific circumstances are expected to commence in 2027 and will be “the first visible indication that new road infrastructure has been deployed”.

It is estimated that by 2028, in-car signaling will replace physical signs entirely, explained Zenzic director of innovation and technology Richard Porter. “When we look at the opportunity, there’s quite a bit to unpack within the naked highway and, with the idea of feeding live info from infrastructure to vehicles, there’s a huge safety benefit as well as a reduction in maintenance costs for infrastructure, which can be quite expensive,” he said.

The idea is to develop more strategic road networks, fewer road gantries, less concrete and steel and infrastructure that’s “hugely expensive” to construct and maintain. “By 2027 we might see a tipping point where we will see less of it required and less budget needed to put towards it,” he said. “We are looking out towards 2040 or 2050 when we see the possible removal of these signs but we are taking the steps to get there now.”

In addition to the aesthetic benefits of sign-free highways, with roadways not typically known for their picturesque qualities, the whole concept of digital way-finding infrastructure is applicable to dense networks of city streets, Porter noted. “It’s really hard to understand things like parking restrictions today. It’s a confusing a miss-match between signs and road markings, and beyond even minor things like that, it can get even more confusing,” he said.

While “naked highways” are admittedly some ways off, Porter says success enabling infrastructure to digitally deliver data to vehicles will be a step forward. In the UK, these sorts of technologies are already being developed and tested in places like the Midlands Future Mobility testing facility that encompasses Coventry and Birmingham.

“It’s about preparing ourselves for this self-driving revolution; that we have data that is reliable and usable by vehicles,” Porter explained. That also means building out a wide-ranging 5G network with the capability to consistently transmit massive amounts of data with near-zero latency. “The latency needs to be reduced to seconds and when you’re looking at safety information like avoiding accidents or being aware of what’s just out of line of sight, for braking in traffic, that requires low-latency 5G networks,” he said.

Porter also noted that ultimately it’s going to be a country-by-country decision across road networks when it comes to signage, which will involve institutions all the way up to the UN, but also at the EU level. He said: “We are going to have to start sharing information regarding the safety and reliability of these IOT networks so we can establish best practices and move forward and we have to do this much more quickly than we are.”

Jean Pilon-Bignell, associate vice-president of government and smart city at Geotab noted that particularly in the US, the cost, maintenance and safety issues associated with physical signage are considerable, with one sign installation costing upward of $30,000. “New approaches to transportation infrastructure such as naked highways present significant benefits,” he explained, noting trial V2X projects are well underway across America in places such as Utah and Georgia.

In Georgia, a pilot program was launched halfway between Atlanta and Montgomery, Alabama, along an 18-mile stretch of Interstate 85 known as The Ray, named after industrial sustainability champion Ray C. Anderson. According to technology partner Panasonic, the section serves as a “living laboratory for technologies that make driving safer, smarter and more sustainable” and a “proving ground for reinventing what a highway could and should be”.

Pilon-Bignell, said: “As connected-car technology advances and GPS and in-vehicle mapping systems improve, benefits will extend far beyond cost alone to improving driver and passenger safety, reducing driver distraction and relieving traffic congestion.”

He explained the roll-out of 5G networks would be a critical factor and, although it is coming, it’s not ready yet. “When it is widely available, people will have access to many upgrades that they did not experience with 4G technologies,” he said. “Users will have a faster connection than ever before, and the 5G network will pave the way for autonomous cars and naked highways.”

While regulatory requirements and standards will undoubtedly vary from country to country, identifying new approaches to safety, digital mapping and road infrastructure would likely be informed by mature testing of self-driving technologies and digital services.


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