The Fatal Issue With Smart Motorways

With large parts of the M3 undergoing intelligent highway conversion, there is a fatal problem affecting intelligent highways that is not being solved. Why are smart highways being introduced, what is the fatal problem they face and why would solutions to it possibly be privacy invading?

Why are smart highways being introduced?

As technology advances, engineers seem to find all sorts of reasons to incorporate it into every aspect of life. Two decades ago, the internet was an option in our lives; E-mail was convenient but not the only form of communication, and computers proved immensely helpful for office tasks such as word processing and spreadsheets. Fast forward to 2022 and it seems that life without an internet connection is simply impossible; Even some toasters have been sold with IoT functionality (who knows why, but soon you won’t be able to toast without a subscription).

The same mindset seems to have plagued National Highways, which is now working to modernize British motorways are becoming ‘smart’ motorways. The idea behind this upgrade is to convert the hard shoulder (the leftmost lane only allowed for breakdowns) into an adaptable lane that can be used for normal traffic. When a vehicle breaks down, it’s moved to this left lane, the incident is reported, and IoT technologies allow network operators to close the lane by flashing a sign over the lane. Traffic is also monitored remotely from control stations, which can be used to identify potential problems, and operators can direct traffic and adjust speed limits if necessary.

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The main reason for removing the hard shoulder is to reduce congestion by creating another lane, but there are numerous reasons why this is not a good idea. By far the simplest reason is that someone who breaks down in the left-most lane can still be hit by a speeding vehicle if they don’t see the restricted signs, while the hard shoulder is an absolute no-go lane for drivers (everyone on this lane is asking to be arrested by the police very quickly).

The second reason why adding lanes doesn’t help is that increasing capacity encourages more driving and that capacity is quickly depleted. This is often found in fast-growing cities that would otherwise be better served by high-speed public transit lines but are instead looking to add more freeways (see the US for this).

Third, drivers who appreciate that hard shoulder and understand its benefits outright refuse to drive far left (including me). A recent report on driving habits has found that 73% of drivers avoid driving in the newly opened left lanes for fear of hitting a stalled vehicle. Simply put, anyone driving in the left lane now realizes that there may be a broken down vehicle in their path.

The fatal issue of intelligent highways – latency

By far the biggest problem facing smart highways is their serious latency problem. The time between a breakdown, turning into the left lane, turning on the warning lights, calling the operator and closing the lane is far too long. As a matter of fact, A lane that is immediately closed will not see any nearby vehicles as it crosses as they may have passed the last sign before approaching the stranded vehicle. Anyone who discovers the broken-down vehicle must also move into the next lane, which can also lead to collisions with faster oncoming traffic.

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The benefit of the side stripe is that it doesn’t matter when or if a vehicle breaks down; The moment it enters the shoulder, the only risk of collision is that a dangerous driver is speeding on the shoulder (which is extremely rare). But as smart highways open up hard shoulders, breakdown drivers rely entirely on the speed of response from network operators, hoping that a perfectly legal driver in the left lane will spot the vehicle and run over it.

To solve this problem, every vehicle on the road would have to install some kind of tracking technology that would be activated in the event of a breakdown. Network operators would not only recognize breakdowns immediately, but also determine the exact location of the vehicle. By not installing this technology in vehicles, there is a serious disconnect between vehicles on the road and network operators trying to locate stranded vehicles.

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Why would such a solution invade privacy?

The presence of tracking technologies in vehicles could offer users immense functionalities including advanced collision avoidance, optimal route planning, traffic light coordination and roadside assistance. However, sharing your real-time location with other nearby vehicles and services is pretty much big brother to get.

Such technologies would not only allow authorities to keep a close eye on their citizens, but they are also open to misuse. Considering that all government-run services often lack basic security measures, it is likely that hackers will exploit such tracking services to monitor interested individuals. By tracking people, hackers can not only identify which businesses and services people use, but also use them to access personal accounts, including bank and shopping accounts.

Aside from that, those who may have access to valuable assets (e.g. expensive cars and houses) could be identified via such tracking, increasing the risk of targeted crime. In fact, there are numerous reports of hackers using it Apple AirTags to track expensive vehicles. Such data could even be sold to professional thieves, creating a barrier between the vehicle thief and the victim (ie no direct link between the two).

Overall, smart highways just don’t work because individual vehicles can’t be tracked. Even as vehicles integrate tracking devices to enhance smart highways, this use of tracking technology is simply unacceptable in a free society where individuals have the right to privacy.

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