Rebuilding the A9 Trunk Road is a Great Opportunity to Invest in the Future

There are two very big changes taking place in road transport that require more thought before building new long distance roads. The first is the capability of many new vehicles to operate more autonomously, and the second is the removal of harmful emissions from vehicles. Although neither will necessarily require major changes to road layouts and configurations, new roads will increasingly help to connect vehicles with each other and with fixed infrastructure.

The speed of change to these new technologies is very rapid. Over the next 20 years robots will increasingly replace people across many activities. This can be a good thing if humans can use these opportunities to enable higher quality lifestyle choices than undertaking repetitive tasks.

There is a real prospect that within my lifetime road deaths will become a thing of the past. For my grandparents, the death of construction workers or miners was viewed as something that society needed to tolerate for the greater good. Road deaths are still viewed in this way, but with connected and autonomous vehicles (CAVs) we now have the prospect of virtually ending the death toll on the roads. The carnage that kills at least three people every week on Scotland’s roads can become a thing of the past. In general, more lanes have helped to improve safety and efficiency with manually driven cars but it may well be that fewer lanes or simpler road configurations could speed up cars and improve safety as we depend more heavily on CAVs. A socially progressive country like Scotland could lead the way by creating a road environment designed to encourage CAVs.

In 2017, anyone building a new long distance route like the A9 dualling project, which will have a lifespan of many years, must plan for the route to be used predominantly by autonomous vehicles. The advantages of driverless vehicles could be greatest on long distance routes like the A9 where the time spent travelling can be used more productively than driving, and the potential for more efficient vehicle operation in electricly powered road trains is greatest.

Anyone who thinks it is too early to be thinking about these things might want to refer to the debates that took place in the 1970s when the current A9 between Perth and Inverness was being planned. Mass car ownership was new and it seemed to be too bold a step to build a dual carriageway when traffic flows could be handled by a single carriageway. As a young civil engineer in the 1980s I can recall my bosses moaning about the short-sighted decisions on the A9 which translated into wider concern as the death toll on the road grew. The need to retrofit the road started even before it was completed. Dual carriageways and motorways might have seemed to planners as out of place in rural Scotland in the 1970s and 1980s. However short sighted thinking wastes money and parts of the A74 between Glasgow and Carlisle were rebuilt as motorway less than 20 years after the A74 was built. The A9 currently requires a raft of safety measures such as average speed cameras to enable it to operate as safely as people expect of a modern long distance road.

In Norway, about three quarters of new Volkswagen Golfs, the best-selling car there, are plug in electric variants. Although Scotland has not reached that level just yet, there is no car manufacturer in the world that is not expecting that electric vehicles will increasingly start to dominate vehicle sales. The complete decarbonation of land based transport by 2050 is one of the Scottish Government’s goals. Transport Scotland’s strategy is to put in electric charging points on long distance routes but I don’t think this is a workable approach in the real world. The only use I see of these charging points are from people with lots of time on their hands such as retired people out for a leisure drive. I have owned a plug in electric car for five years and I know I would not use it for driving up the A9. However, electric motoring can be a practical option for our long distance roads including motorways if we use use emerging technologies better.

Few people want to stop their car to charge on a long journey, and lorries, buses and coaches need much more frequent charging. Internationally accepted systems for enabling vehicles to connect with energy systems when moving will emerge early in the lifespan of an upgraded A9, but these are currently some years away. The problem in 2017 is that nobody yet knows what system will emerge. There are various concepts for electric highways being piloted around the world, perhaps with inductive charging built into the road surface or perhaps even making the road surface itself from materials that operate as solar panels. Perhaps 20 years from now the charging systems could be the ones demonstrated on the A9 underpinning Scotland’s economic success as a centre of excellence in electric highways?

Fixing the A9 could be an opportunity to lead the world, but rushing ahead with an A9 dualling programme to a 20th century design could turn out to be a huge waste of money. The smart money invests in the future so with clever procurement Transport Scotland could capture value from those wishing to invest in innovation at the same time as making road improvements with more certain benefits. It might even be easier to attract the funding to build the world first long distance route designed for autonomous electric cars than for older road design approaches. We see this with the huge investment being made in new cars. Although there are still many fewer electric connected and autonomous cars being sold internationally than traditional manually operated petrol and diesel cars, investors value Tesla as a company more highly than General Motors. The same can be true of the roads themselves with the countries building the roads of the future being worth rather more than those that don’t.

2017 is a great time to be planning an experimental electric highway for autonomous vehicles. In some operating conditions, it might be better to segregate driverless cars from manually operated vehicles, so careful thought is needed to junction configurations to allow vehicles to merge in and out of vehicle trains. Each year that passes yields more insights. For example, the trials of lorry trains on English motorways will be particularly informative in a UK context using UK road standards, and the use of Tesla cars in snowbound parts of Norway will offer many lessons relevant for operating in the Scottish climate.

The new roads we are building use financing structures that last many years. Given that our kids will paying, it would be good to think that they will be paying for something they want. With so many uncertainties about the future, a good starting point is to work with what we know, and invest in that. It is already very clear that our grandchildren will not be expecting roads designed for manually driven vehicles with internal combustion engines. Thanks to the decisions in the 1970s and 80s the A9 is well known for being a generation behind the rest of Europe, so why not rethink the current road design specifications and go a generation ahead?

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