Every industry has been rapidly adopting technology solutions to evolve in the last five years. Technology has embedded itself so ferociously in so many industries that today the terms fintech, retailtech, autotech, medtech, and cleantech are commonplace. But what about road tech? Yes that intersection of technology and the roads we use every day, no pun intended? Well it might have been overlooked, but road tech has never had so much news traffic or constant refueling of ideas, concepts and innovations (puns intended)!
Whilst technology innovations in some sectors focus on speeding up processes like payments or improving an experience like mobile shopping, road tech is heavily focused on a three-pronged approach: improving road safety, reducing fatalities and managing traffic. As our lives become increasingly digital, the volume of information between cars, drivers and environment has grown exponentially, as have innovations to help us manage the data. As the world becomes more populous, more urban, and more congested, road transport is heavily relying on technology to find solutions.
The problem is there are now 1 billion vehicles on the road globally. The World Economic Forum (WEF) says that number could grow by 600 million by 2025, and by 2050 it could rise as high as 4 billion. This brings enormous costs and consequences. Nearly 1.3 million people die each year in traffic accidents, and another 20 to 50 million are injured. Vehicles are the source of approximately 17 percent of all carbon emissions as well, making it a primary cause of air pollution (and all the health conditions that come with it) and climate change.
Whilst autonomous vehicles, traffic grids and advanced telemetry made the headlines a year ago as our potential future, today’s headlines are populated with the offering of new traffic solutions for congestion. These range from robot or drone helicopter taxis, the concept of hyper-loop, and greater digitalization of roads and transport systems. Previously limited to physical elements like barriers and traffic signs, road infrastructure now increasingly relies on digital technologies such as wireless networks, hyper-connectivity, and artificial intelligence. There are always alternate transportation methods like bicycling or walking, and it’s also about finding new ways of approaching mobility services as a whole in this new sharing economy age.
But technology alone does not have all the answers. The human element is paramount and without the right human behavioral change, the full benefits of technology and innovation in road tech cannot be realized. Let’s take the relationship between motorists and cyclists for example. Lots of new technology from wireless cameras, to lane assists, to 360 sensors, to Internet of Things (IoT) and intelligent traffic lights, all helping both parties deal with road hazards. But with nearly 300 million cars and over 250 million bicycles on European roads today, serious accidents are still too common. It’s a horrifying fact that in the UK alone, cyclists account for 1 in 12 of all road fatalities. Cities around the world are actively promoting cycling and its proven benefits to health, air quality and congestion. However, safety remains a major deterrent. Infrastructure and cycle lanes are not keeping pace with urban growth, and neither is technology, so behavior needs to change too.
When it comes to creating safer roads, Ford deployed a non-traditional awareness campaign because they knew a transformative experience was needed. Ford invited motorists and cyclists to share the road using the age-old approach of “walk a mile in my shoes,” but this time it was on wheels with a high-tech twist. Ford created the WheelSwap VR experience, combining behavioral science insights with cutting-edge VR technology. WheelSwap is an innovative approach designed to inspire empathy and inspire safer behavior; cyclists become drivers, virtually feeling what it is like for drivers when they jump red lights, cycle down one-way streets the wrong way and swerve unexpectedly; drivers become cyclists, feeling the fear of being overtaken too closely, swerving without indicating and opening car doors without checking for bikes. This naturally helped the two camps of people: cyclists and drivers, to better understand each other’s ‘hierarchy on the road, leading almost immediately to measurable behavior change. Within two weeks of taking part, 60 percent of drivers and cyclists who took part in the experiment changed their on-road habits This behavioral change will go a long way in ensuring the efficacy of road tech innovations for both parties.
Road tech with its smarter, more efficient traffic managed roads can help reduce accidents. Information technology plays a crucial role in helping drivers navigate (and avoid) traffic, as well as make travel and commerce more efficient, and it can augment the capacities being developed by the automotive industries and others. The next five to 10 years will be crucial. If we work together and embrace a personal behavioral change to how we view others on the road, we can collectively improve the adoption of technology and innovation to make our roads safer and more enjoyable.