How self-driving technology is set to transform Scotland’s highways
The Scotland of the future could lead the world in next generation highway design. Its motorways and major ‘A’ roads would be fitted with segregated highway lanes that would host driverless electric vehicles or hybrids moving at great speeds in convoys.
The idea behind what would be called TEV (Track Electric Vehicle) lanes would be to provide a space in which to optimise the self-driving technology that is already being developed in Tesla vehicles.
Closed in TEV lanes could be added as a single lane on existing motorways providing an inherently safe environment for driverless cars to operate in because it would be a fixed guideway, the speeds would be steady and the fact that it was closed in would mean that the lane would be kept clear of debris, or animals or people crossing the road and so would be safe and would be easier to maintain and keep costs down.
The vehicles would be travelling on a special kind of surface, an ‘electric roadway’, meaning that they would be charging as they went along.
The TEV project was founded by Will Jones, founder of Philadelphia Scientific, an English-based high tech industrial battery company, and his daughter Caroline Jones Carrick, who is based in Prestwick in Ayrshire.
Jones Carrick says: “We’ve looked at all kinds of ways of implementing these roads; basically anywhere that has highways currently could implement these special lanes in place of ones that already exist. So the rights of way are there, you don’t have to develop from scratch.”
Scotland would be a very suitable place to develop a network of TEV lanes because of the comparatively large size of its land mass compared to its population. She says: “It’s not a high density place, there are a lot of long distance roads.
“You have ones going all the way up to the Highlands which we could imagine having these lanes. A network of TEV lanes could help to transform the country, contributing both significantly to the economy and to the environment.
“Basically passengers can relax, be productive, take their hands off the wheel and be travelling in a zero emissions environment.”
The use of self-driving technology would allow cars to be placed very closely together travelling in what they refer to as convoys. Jones Carrick explains the benefits of the convoys in her soft American accent: “Primarily that was to reduce energy consumption for the vehicle – just like slipstreaming in motor sport racing. If you tuck a car in behind another one, the front car bears the brunt of the air resistance and then the ones that follow consume less energy while they’re moving.
“We’re working on how to optimise convoys, how many vehicles should be in each convoy and what the energy consumption reduction is as a result. To get 40 per cent less consumption per vehicle is what we’re targeting.
“But the reason I specifically mentioned the convoys for places like Scotland is because when you’re spacing the cars closely together you’re also making these roads much higher capacity. We have worked out that you can get at least ten times as many cars on one single lane. Talk about a difference in land usage – suddenly you’ve got a motorway that’s a tenth of the size doing the same job.
“So imagine the M8 between Edinburgh and Glasgow, which everyone who takes that road thinks is a nightmare. If you put TEV lane in there you’re increasing the capacity of that road without expanding the road itself in terms of the land that it uses.
“If you’re building roads from scratch there’s a huge cost in terms of either acquiring land, or even if you have it, in the development involved in making the roadway through hillsides. If you’re repurposing a lane there’s a huge advantage there cost-wise.”
The model that those behind the TEV Project are working on is that the TEV lane would be in the outside lane. The key challenge would then be how you get the vehicles onto the motorway and into the TEV lane.
Jones Carrick says: “The engineering challenge becomes on and off ramps and things like that, but this is also what was faced by highways in the 1940s, fifties and sixties when they were implemented.”
The working idea is for on ramp that would go over the inside lanes and take the vehicles to join the covered TEV lane. “As long as you are in that lane, a human cannot be in control because we’re asking the car to do such precise stuff that the work has to be done by the computer,” she says.
“If you look at a schematic of the road design there are what we call friction surfaces under the tyre and they will be optimised for rolling resistance so you are not losing any more energy than you need to as the rubber tyres are moving along it, but you’re not making it so slippery that the rubber tyres can’t stop really fast. Because that’s the great thing about rubber-tyred vehicles they can stop really quickly.
“So you see two black strips they are the friction surfaces, they’re not like a train track or anything, they’re just the surfaces the tyres move on. Beside them is the mechanism for powering the vehicle’s battery.
“Because the vehicle has to be spaced quite precisely the computer has to be in control. On a traditional road you’ll often see a 12-foot wide space because human drivers veer around within a lane.
“Today the self-driving technology can do the proximity control. So it can very accurately space how close it is to the vehicle in front. The next step for us will be making sure that there’s vehicle to vehicle communication so that if these vehicle slows this one automatically slows so the convoy’s really efficient.”
The TEV Project has a partnership contract to work along with academics at Newcastle University who are carrying out detailed research and development work on the project. The TEV lane work at the university is being led by Professor Volker Pickert, head of the electrical power group at the university, who manages a team of 100 researchers. A PHD student and an undergraduate are working full time on the TEV project.
Caroline Jones Carrick says that the academics have recently produced two research papers, one of them on optimising the convoys.
The research team will go on in the next few months to develop a static prototype of the project, which will then be followed by the development of a dynamic one.
Jones Carrick says that it is too early for the TEV Project to have done detailed cost modelling. But, she says: “If you had a really simple stretch of road, best case scenario we had an estimate that came in at US$1.6m which if you compare that with traditional motorways is astonishingly inexpensive. I do like to caveat that though, realistically you would be implementing in all sorts of terrain, curves, things that rack up costs. So that costing is very much best case scenario.”
Caroline Jones Carrick says that the TEV project could fit in well with government’s policy vision for the future. “The big challenge is electrification of road transport here and that’s a tough one. Scotland’s being pretty ambitious about when it wants to phase out new internal combustion engine cars – in 2032.
“How are you going to get everyone into EVs instead, how are you going to make sure they’re chargeable, how are you going to make sure the grid can handle the power required by all those cars charging at any given time. So TEV is part of the answer to that.”
While the TRV system envisaged would have dynamic charging in the road, in practical terms charging points for cars would still be needed. “Because you could be someone who has an electric vehicle who doesn’t spend enough time on long distance roads to keep your car regularly charged so you might still want to have a charging point at your house.”
So is the future not one where people would own their own cars but where they would call up one of a fleet of share publicly or privately provided driverless cars which would take you on to a TEV lane on a motorway if you were wanting to travel a longer distance?
Jones Carrick says: “Part of what you’re talking about there depends on how far the technology goes with self-driving vehicles. I really think you could have car sharing and ride sharing like you have with Uber –Uber is itself trying to bring in self-driving cars so that they don’t have to have drivers.
“If you move towards that you will always have people who, if they can afford it, will have private cars but if these cars are driving themselves you might find you could get in a car there rather than your car. If the car drives you where you want to go, you don’t really care whether it’s yours or not, although you might be subscribing to a certain level of car like an executive transport or saloon or whatever.
“That car gets you where you want to go and another car will come and get you and take you back when you want it on demand with an app, much as Uber works now, but these cars are electric and they’re driverless.”
But there are some like David Watt, the executive director of IoD Scotland, who argue that in reality a car is a bit of a person’s own personal space and that is something that they will not want to give up. Jones Carrick says: “I am sure there are people like him who feel strongly that way, I can think of a few.
“The difficulty for me with that is I’m not one of them, despite the fact that I’ve got three children and it is convenient to have all their gubbins in the boot where I’m going.”
She believes that technology will help to lead in the direction of more shared cars or shared rides rather than a household having its own car or cars in the drive. She says:
“When I hired a car last in the States, I took my Apple phone, I plugged it into the Apple interface, and the interface automatically comes up through the screen on the dash from my phone. The satnav is my satnav, I’m used to it. It knows my regular places. I’m directing it through voice.
“My music, my Spotify playlist, its all there. I can play my kids’ lullabies. They’re sitting in the back and they’re falling asleep on the drive. In a totally unfamiliar car, my personal space has been transported into it. I really think that with technology we’ll find that more and more, we’ll be able to customise our environment so quickly with gadgets that if you want your personal bubble, it will feel like that, unless there is someone else in it and you’re car sharing to save money.”