Digital solutions can stem the economic toll of road congestion, official says

A self-driving shuttle bus starts operation in Helsinki, Finland. [EPA-EFE/KIMMO BRANDT]

This article is part of our special report Intelligent transport systems.

Digitalising European roads will save lives, reduce harmful polluting emissions, and cut down the “pure economic waste” caused by traffic congestion, according to an EU official.

Reducing traffic jams will improve the competitiveness of Europe’s economy, leading to “very significant” benefits, said Kristian Hedberg, an official at the European Commission’s transport directorate.

His comments came on Thursday (25 March), at an event exploring the future of road digitalisation in the EU.

Applying Intelligent Transport Systems on European highways have led to at least 75 fewer fatalities and prevented thousands of road accidents, participants heard.

Around 1.2 million hours that would have been lost to congestion were also saved.

The Ursa Major corridor, which runs from the Netherlands through Germany to the south of Italy, was digitised to improve the flow of freight traffic, resulting in a 13% reduction in journey times and a 22% drop in carbon emissions.

“We can see that for the combined investment of just over €230 million, annual safety and socio-economic savings are around €55 million, which would mean an overall average return on investment of around four years,” said Daniel Cullern, a consultant who spoke on behalf of Highways England, an organisation involved in the digitalisation project.

“This just goes to underline the impact of those ITS services,” he added.

ITS use information and communication technologies, such as sensors and satellites, to better monitor roads. The data generated can make roads more efficient by alerting drivers to bottlenecks, regulating traffic lights, and instantly contacting emergency services if a crash occurs.

EU official: Road digitalisation will lead to safer and greener highways

EU funding is supporting member states to integrate digital technology into European highways, making travelling by road smarter. Intelligent Transport Systems have the potential to increase road safety and efficiency, cutting emissions and potentially saving lives, says Pieropaolo Tona.

Advances in data connectivity and artificial intelligence have opened up mobility solutions that would have been considered “fantasies” years ago, said Hedberg.

However, greater harmonisation of ITS systems across Europe, such as data standardisation and the extension of digital infrastructure, is needed to ensure a seamless service for road users and to prepare for autonomous vehicles.

“Get ready for the next revolution,” said Vito Mauro, a member of the national Italian observatory on smart roads. “We cannot ignore the potential impact of automated and connected cars, the impact that these things will have on our lives and on transportation.”

“Automation is coming and we have to find a way to cooperate before this is imposed on us,” added Dr. Johanna Tzanidaki of the mobility service organisation ERTICO.

Surely, there will be teething problems associated with deployment of digital infrastructure.  One of them is the “high challenges” of managing roads with mixed driver and driverless traffic, said Malika Seddi, CEO of the European Association of Operators of Toll Road Infrastructure.

On the issue of funding the roll-out of ITS infrastructure, the European Commission’s Pierpaolo Tona said the Connecting Europe Facility, which aims to improve transport and digital links between EU countries, is ideally placed to offer financial support.

CEF is expected to be officially approved in the coming weeks following an informal trialogue agreement between the European Parliament and European Council. Once passed, it will unlock over €30 billion for smart and sustainable transport and energy projects.

EU reaches agreement on cross-border infrastructure funding

Following lengthy and at times contentious negotiations, the European Parliament and Council agreed Friday (11 March) on the Connecting Europe Facility, making available over €30 billion in funding for transport, digital, and energy projects.

[Edited by Frédéric Simon]

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