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Last edited 19 Feb 2019
A vision for digital highways
|Could digital design shape a better future for road networks? “It’s possible,” says Adrian Malone, “if we realise the potential of technology that already exists.”|
Imagine a future where all road users enjoy a better experience, where there has been a step change in the efficiency of the network and everyone involved in running it works together seamlessly. Does that sound far-fetched? Maybe, if you have just been stuck in a traffic jam – but the technological innovation to enable this could already be out there.
William Gibson, the novelist who coined the term ‘cyberspace’, said: “The future is already here – it’s just not very easily distributed.” In other words, there are existing pockets of innovation that have not yet become widely adopted. If they were, the future could look very different from the present.
There are three technologies in particular that could transform the future of highways:
 The digital twin
More than just a building information model, the digital twin is a replica of an asset – such as a section of motorway – that’s connected in real time to sensors and equipment embedded in that asset. A smart motorway’s digital twin would contain data on things such as live traffic flow, but it could also make updates to the real-world asset – changing the gantry sign information, for example.
By bringing together lots of data, both static and dynamic, the digital twin opens up massive potential for machine learning and artificial intelligence. This, in turn, would enable design automation through the rapid engineering model.
 Automation and ‘productisation’
Design automation tools are an established concept, but the digital twin could take things further. The twin could work with the model to spot patterns and trends in the data, and to rapidly create simulations of road improvements.
The next step would to take advantage of the current drive towards standardisation which will be reinforced in 2019 through the ‘presumption in favour of offsite manufacture’ embraced by five UK Government departments to embed standardisation and ‘productisation’ into automated design. Using standardised components across multiple projects means that designers can stop reinventing the wheel on each project and broaden their role to include components, systems, assembly and an asset-wide view.
In short, digital will free engineers to focus more on customer value. This has been the focus of a series of blog posts and a video the team at WSP has created as it has explored what the future of highways may look like. To illustrate how digital highways could benefit customers, let us meet one of the personas that has been created. Meet Tammy Haigh.
 Tammy’s story
Tammy works part-time, dropping her daughter Erica at a childminder near their home in Huddersfield before travelling to work in Manchester. While she used to find her journey quite smooth, increasing congestion means she is having to drop Erica off earlier to avoid being late for work.
Less time, more stress
As every parent of young children will know, leaving 10 minutes earlier in the morning can be stressful. As a result, Tammy is more rushed and Erica less settled when she is dropped off. The day does not get off to a good start.
 Digital twin to the rescue
Tammy had almost forgotten that she had signed up for a new smartphone app that collects data (with her permission) about her daily commute and feeds it, along with data from other drivers, into the digital twin. The machine learning tools constantly scan the digital twin and have alerted planners to the new pattern of congestion Tammy and the other drivers have experienced.
 Solutions generated and tested
Tammy received a message via her app from the highways’ planner. The planner said they had run a range of simulations in the digital model and identified some things to try and help improve Tammy’s journey each morning – such as changing the timing of traffic signals on other surrounding roads. Tammy is sceptical at first, but over time she begins to see the congestion easing as various solutions are generated and tested.
 A happy ending
The story ends with everything back on track. When she drops Erica at the childminder, Tammy is more relaxed. Erica is too. Tammy’s routine is working smoothly once again.
Ultimately, this is all about the road user. Digital technology can help our industry enable its customers to be better prepared and more engaged – to involve them more fully in its work and communicate more effectively with them. Technology will not constrain possibility, but we must be bold and imaginative to realise its potential to deliver better outcomes for the customer.
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