The organisation in charge of the nation’s motorways and major A-roads says new ‘digital roads’ will help make the network “safer and greener”. National Highways, the government-run organisation formerly known as Highways England, says it will use cutting-edge technology to improve safety and cut journey times.

As part of its “digital revolution”, National Highways has revealed plans to create a “virtual twin” of the existing motorway and A-road network that can predict the time and location of potholes and other maintenance issues. The organisation also wants to introduce more high-tech technology on the network itself, including “intelligent” road materials that can repair themselves and more autonomous road maintenance equipment.

The ‘road twinning’ system, which is being developed with funds from the £8.6 million EPSRC Digital Roads Prosperity Partnership grant and the £6 million EU MSCA COFUND Future Roads Fellowships programme, involves drawings and static models of the National Highways network being replaced with digital versions.

Autonomous vehicles on road communicationg with wifi signals and radar

These digital roadways can combine ‘live’ data from “intelligent” materials in the road surface with a visualisation of the road, helping to identify when and where maintenance will be needed. Although the organisation says “self-sealing” road surfaces will reduce the need for physical maintenance, reducing the need for on-site inspections and time-consuming, congestion-causing roadworks.

Where roadworks are necessary, however, National Highways wants to make use of connected and autonomous machinery, off-site fabrication and modular construction methods. With autonomous cone-laying vehicles already on trial and autonomous dump trucks having been put through their paces, National Highways says the plans could reduce disruption for drivers, improve safety and cut carbon emissions of roadworks by around 50 percent.

“We are at the beginning of a digital revolution on our roads network, a once-in-a-century transformation which will fundamentally change how our roads are designed, built, operated and used,” said National Highways’ executive director of strategy and planning, Elliot Shaw. “The Digital Roads journey, the strategy that will create the roads of the future, is huge. It covers every aspect of the roads infrastructure from design and construction, to how roads are operated to the changing experience for all road users.

“Digital Roads will make our roads safer and greener. Improvements and maintenance will be delivered more quickly with less disruption and road users will have a far better end-to-end journey experience, with savings on time and the cost of travel.”