The UK wants to install wifi along 4,400 miles of highway

The commute of the future.
The commute of the future.
Image: Ruben Sprich/Reuters
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The UK is committed to launching self-driving cars, without safety drivers, on the road by 2021. The ambition requires more than just the advancement of auto technology; it also requires significant upgrades to the country’s roads.

To help meet that need, Highways England, a government-owned company that operates and maintains the country’s motorways, announced yesterday (Dec. 13) a proposal to install high speed fibre-optic cabling across more than 4,400 miles of road. The vision, published in its Strategic Road Network Initial Report, is part of a larger £15 billion strategy to modernize England’s motorways in preparation for the cars and mobility needs of the future. Should the agency move ahead with the proposal, the work would begin after 2020.

Whereas current self-driving cars rely on human safety drivers and well-scoped testing grounds to navigate changing roadway conditions, fully autonomous vehicles would need wifi and 5G connectivity to communicate to them variable speed limits, traffic conditions, and planned roadwork, the agency said. The upgrades would also benefit drivers of ordinary cars by improving the efficiency of highway maintenance; sensors could monitor concrete degradation and detect potholes, for example, and upload the data to local maintainers to address the issue in a timely manner.

“Because people’s journeys are important to us, we are setting out our high-level aspirations which will help ensure the network continues to drive economic growth, jobs and prosperity, and keeps traffic moving today and into the future,” Jim O’Sullivan, Highways England’s chief executive, said in a statement.

The agency will run a £15 million pilot in Kent county next year, where it will beam traffic instructions, travel conditions, and signs directly into pilot vehicle dashboards, the BBC reports. The trial will test the effectiveness of internet connectivity through different terrains like tunnels.

The report is now open to public comment through February 7.