As we look to the future of driving, there are 3 main innovations pushing ahead.
Most newspaper coverage and wider discussions are centred on just two – driverless cars, and electric vehicles – and I understand why. Both innovations will mean huge behavioural changes for most of us. Imagine no longer needing to use a steering wheel to drive a car? Or the end of filling up at petrol stations, albeit replaced with range anxiety and potential cable chaos on your driveway or in car parks.
The third and least discussed innovation is connected vehicles, but which I feel is of equal, if not more, importance.
It covers many areas such as 5G network upgrades, how data is transferred between vehicles, road management, and the introduction of digital first services that will soon become standard for many drivers.
Connected vehicle technology is also the backbone that driverless cars will become reliant upon; the transfer of road data, including what other vehicles around you are doing, will be vital for autonomy.
Electric vehicles too, will need to rely on connected vehicle technology to help manage power within vehicles and demand across our energy networks. Finding public charging points in the most efficient time will be made that much easier if all our cars are connected too.
There are perhaps a couple of reasons why connected cars get less coverage than driverless and electric cars. Journalists like to write about things they can experience themselves, and driverless and electric cars are very much tangible whereas connectivity isn’t. It’s the Cinderella of traffic. Another reason is that while the impact of vehicle connectivity is broad, it doesn’t have many clear stand-out use cases, instead relying on small touch points across other areas.
We can even look at research on the pending connected car services market, which McKinsey indicated could be as large as $750 billion by 2030, and see that there are lots of non-critical use cases, from street sweeping alerts to young driver geofence alerts.
However, I want to discuss a use case that is much more important – in-vehicle signage (IVS).
What is in-vehicle signage?
When we drive, we’ll observe many signs on the road that tell us what to do. These include signs that we must obey, such as speed limits, and signs that give advice, such as “slow down”, which are a good idea to follow, but are not legal requirements.
We may also receive information directly in the car about road conditions. For example, RDS traffic messages, where a radio station is temporarily interrupted for traffic alerts and updates, has been around for a long time.
Reduce speed now sign on the M25
However, with connected vehicles we can enhance this greatly, by giving specific location-based information to drivers while they are on the road. If we are aware of their planned journeys, we can also divert drivers to more suitable routes before they set off and during their trip.
With the introduction of Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, the ability to present information via both car infotainment systems and car audio is now feasible. Although visual signs more closely mirror existing signs, audio signs are just as important to ensure drivers can keep their eyes on the road.
We can use Siri and Google Assistant to allow drivers to ask for more information, or to select from options that might update their navigation, switch to a new diverted navigation, or to sit in traffic and wait for it to clear.
Road signs can also help prevent accidents if they are placed in locations that are deemed to reduce risk on the roads. But this is sub-optimal. It takes time and huge expense to install new signs and we may not be able to place them in the ideal locations due to road layout. It might also be useful to provide variable information, which we already have on many of our motorways, but don’t have on our statistically more dangerous A and B roads.
This is where the flexibility of IVS will help. With our mobile phone GPS technology and integration with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, we can trigger warnings to drivers and create virtual road signs at the touch of a button. These can be made time and weather specific, and even vehicle-type tailored, and adjusted based on traffic.
Eloy, KL Systems, and White Willow case study
Eloy has been working with Andy Graham from White Willow Consulting and George Brown from KL Systems to produce our own IVS which pulls through information from existing Highways England road signs and new “virtual” signs we have added, processes it and then presents it to drivers as in-car visual and audio warnings.
As a driver approaches strategically placed overhead information boards on motorways, the information is replicated through the Eloy App to provide a visual information box on the car infotainment screen and a spoken announcement. This incorporates text-to-voice to provide flexibility across various message types.
This IVS information is also directional, so that it is only visible if you are driving in the appropriate direction along a motorway and it is triggered with a controllable distance to the stored sign location. So if a driver needs to be alerted by a point in the road, the IVS is triggered in advance of them getting there. This allows us to vary the warning based on driver speed or the collective speed and density of the traffic. Importantly, this allows us, or a road authority, to place an IVS in any location, unrestricted by physical road layout.
Via the KL Systems’ portal, further information can be added to the basic information that is pulled through and processed from the road network. The demonstration video below incorporates a warning related to roadworks that forced a lane closure – although note that our demo video has some inaccuracies due to the prototype nature of the product!
Demo of IVS with a single lane closure on a 2-lane highway.
As a group we are excited about where we can take this. We have observed that Vodafone, Nokia, and Chordant have announced their connected car system that is presented via a mobile phone. The future across vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) and vehicle-to-network will certainly be positive – contributing to both electric and driverless cars but also setting us up for safer roads, more dynamic road management, and more informed vehicle passengers.
Damian Horton, co-founder of Eloy commented, “It’s really exciting to draw in real-world information into the vehicle. We feel there is so much more we can offer to make our roads safer.”
George Brown added, “Integration with Eloy’s CarPlay app is a significant step forward for the use of IVS. The capability to bring live warnings from road authorities on road network hazards such as stranded vehicles and Queueing traffic seamlessly into ordinary navigation services delivered into car infotainment systems offers real potential to improve road safety.”
IVS on the M25 displayed on the car infotainment system via the Eloy app
Final word on Smart Motorways
Whilst many applications of IVS are for outside Smart Motorways, we see several converging technologies being applied to our motorway system.
Firstly, Auto Lane Keeping Systems (ALKS) will be the first application of driverless cars on our motorways. Slow and steady mode during high density traffic. We might keep this in mind as in-car warnings of ALKS zones may be useful.
Secondly, we must be aware that motorways will be more highly managed going forward. Smart Motorways have the necessity to close the slow lane if there is a stranded vehicle (which can happen in fast lanes on our conventional motorway system too). We must expect that speed limits and lane closures will become implemented more widely as traffic speeds are lowered during heavy traffic. This is counter intuitive but it actually increases the speed that everyone travels at, as it reduces sudden braking, accidents and phantom traffic jams.
Having clear communication to drivers about what is coming ahead, with specific audio warnings when a critical risk is ahead is essential. We don’t need to install signs and can fill gaps where signs don’t work, or if obscured by a truck.
We have demonstrated this in the video above – when a lane closure might have been missed by the driver. We look forward to exploring further V2V communication that can also predict potential sudden lane changes on roads with multiple lanes.