Save fuel, save the planet. The technology’s there – but will we fund it?

Smart Traffic lights are one of many technologies that could save fuel and make transport more efficient - but it will require new thinking to implement

Smart Traffic lights are one of many technologies that could save fuel and make transport more efficient - but it will require new thinking to implement

Technology is moving on at a rapid pace. But just because we can improve our lives with new innovations, doesn’t mean it’s going to happen any time soon. Not unless we figure out how to pay for the changeover. TSC CEO Paul Campion takes a look at how traffic lights could change the world. If only we’d let them.

Connected Vehicles are the future of travel. The technology that underpins this revolution in transportation is constantly opening up new and intriguing possibilities. We can now build cars that can receive information from traffic lights engineered to broadcast it, about when that light is going to turn green. Why would anyone want to know that? Maybe you’re thinking it’s because it allows the driver to put their foot down, knowing the light is about to turn in their favour. Actually, it’s just the opposite.

Knowing that the light is about to change means the driver (or the car itself, autonomously) can slow down, save fuel and time their arrival at the light perfectly, catching the so-called ‘green wave’. The result is traffic that keeps flowing, with much less stopping and starting. It’s that stopping and starting that burns the most fuel. It’s not unusual for fuel efficiency on free-flowing motorways to be double that of driving in town – and that’s all down to how much stopping and starting we do. So there are huge financial and environmental benefits to be gained from traffic lights that give us the nod on adjusting our speed to avoid that stop/start problem.

This type of thinking also lies behind the introduction of smart motorways. Slowing down individual drivers increases the overall capacity of the motorway, meaning everyone gets where they want to be faster. It’s counter-intuitive, because our human brains are conditioned to think that the quicker we go, the sooner we arrive, but in the case of motorways, that’s not always true.

So, we have all this technology and this information. But are we committed to using it? The numbers say we should. For example, when it comes to improving a busy motorway like the M1 or the M6, we could spend billions of pounds putting in an extra lane – a very costly option, not just financially, but in terms of upheaval and disruption. Alternatively, we could use technology to create a smart motorway that has interactive speed signs to regulate traffic flow. That would take just 10% of the financial investment of an extra lane; yet deliver 80% of the benefits. We find it very hard, as individuals, to recognise these benefits when we’re driving on the motorway – we just want to go fast! So there’s a ‘political’ game at play – winning over hearts and minds to the new technology and, most important of all, figuring out how it gets financed.

Let’s go back to our traffic lights. At the moment, connected vehicles aren’t common. It’s going to be tricky to convince drivers to pay for new traffic lights that they personally can’t benefit from. At some point, somebody has got to pay to change over all the traffic lights. There’s an analogy here that we can learn from: RDS. That’s the technology that keeps the radio tuned in to our chosen station as we’re driving around. You tune into Radio 4, for example, as you leave London, and you’re still listening to Radio 4 when you arrive in Manchester. This doesn’t happen by accident – your radio is retuning every 50 miles or so.

RDS is a system that works well in the UK, because the BBC installed it nationwide, so other manufacturers and suppliers in the chain had to do the same. RDS doesn’t work in the USA, because American radio consists mainly of privately financed, local stations, so nobody has invested the money to install it.

So here’s the crux of the issue, if you’re a car manufacturer, how much are you willing to spend to put RDS into your cars in America? None. Because customers aren’t going to pay extra for something they can’t use. It’s the exact same problem that we now have with traffic light technology.

It all comes down to budgets, how we plan and, of course, politics. Traffic lights are funded by local authorities, who spend 60% of their budget on social care. That means money spent supporting people struggling with illness, disability, old age or poverty. We can only imagine the kind of conversations that would arise from suggesting some of that budget gets used to install traffic lights to benefit the driver of new, high-end cars. It’s not an argument that is going to succeed politically. But that’s because we’re taking a short-term view.

Improving our traffic light systems would benefit everybody in the long term. Yes, the individual saves money, but additionally, the nation meets its climate change targets, and our grandchildren get to live on dry land, instead of being up to their knees in seawater.

The way we organise funding for the roll-out of technology is slowing down the pace of change. It’s a vicious circle: the traffic lights don’t get updated, so drivers can’t benefit from them, so car manufacturers don’t invest in the in-car technology – which means drivers won’t be able to benefit from the traffic lights, so the lights don’t get installed. It’s exactly this kind of problem that we’ve got to solve.

At the TSC we can be part of the solution. It’s why we exist. If 1 in 4 ships in our oceans are carrying oil, just think of the possibilities if we could save even just 5% of fuel usage. Once you start to see this bigger picture it becomes clear that everything is connected. Investing in our traffic lights ultimately leads to less international shipping transport and a huge reduction in our carbon footprint. We save money, we save the planet, and we create high-quality jobs in sustainable industries. All of this takes a change in the way we think, the way we plan and the way we spend our public money.

Find out more about the Transport Systems Catapult here

Cookies on Catapult explained

To comply with EU directives we now provide detailed information about the cookies we use. To find out more about cookies on this site, what they do and how to remove them, see our information about cookies. Click OK to continue using this site.