Last week I was fortunate enough to attend one of the highlights of the UK infrastructure calendar as Highways UK rolled into the National Exhibition Centre in Birmingham. Wednesday 6th November marked the start of the two-day conference where all major players in the sector from Highways England to government leaders all shared their views on whether the road of the future will be more like a Scalextric track, if cars drive themselves or if electric vehicle charging is the answer to helping the planet.

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Throughout the conference, there was a clear focus; sustainability. Organisations admitted it was a challenge of magnitude with some attendees believing this was the greatest challenge that the sector has ever had to face.

This theme created a hot bed of different ideas; one eye-catcher for me was discussed at a talk hosted by an array of leaders from sub-national transport bodies, where the idea of pay-as-you-go mobility was introduced. The concept was simple, as cars become more advanced, they will essentially become data beacons for the network, which means road tax could be linked to the number of miles that the car covers on a yearly basis, rather than a flat amount. This makes perfect sense in every other part of our lives from utility bills to phone contracts, so can it work for our cars too?

The sustainability topic rolled on throughout the event, but one thing that was dismissed on the whole was electric vehicle charging being the sole answer. While electric vehicle sales may have seen a 151% increase in October compared to 12 months ago, the idea of every car on the road being powered this way is currently flawed because of a lack of  infrastructure to support it — with around 25,000 charging points in the UK, compared to the 37 million cars that were registered on the road in 2017.

Drilling down into a more immediate proposition that appears to hold the key for any sustainability ideas is the use of data, which is being widely accepted by transport bodies and technology vendors alike. Nick Smee, CEO of our client, Yotta, a leading technology company in the highways sector, took this one step further and believes there is ‘a growing recognition that data is the most valuable resource that people have at their disposal’ and acknowledges that more data will continue to be available from a variety of sources such as ‘asset surveys and first autonomous vehicle’.

In terms of what the road of the future might look like, it is very much still up for debate with creating roads out of recycled plastic being one option put forward by one Scottish  firm earlier this year. Meanwhile Shell, has developed a clear picture of what the road would look like, featuring glow in the dark lanes to pollution sapping road surfaces all of which seem a long way of becoming a mainstream and long-term solution.

The highways sector clearly has plenty of hurdles to overcome in tackling the sustainability challenge and although there is no fast lane to success, the event provided a fantastic insight into how the issue is being approached and it was clear that the majority agree that data will still be king in 2020.


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