Tomorrow’s traffic technology
Jo Versavel, the man behind the globally successful Belgian video detection company Traficon has been in the road traffic industry for 25 years – and a motorist for even longer – during which time he has observed many changes to road safety and to mobility in general.
During his days in research, driving to the University of Louvain involved fairly small secondary roads that offered smooth journeys without the hassle of major highways. But then, as more big highways were built and attracted more drivers, a shift occurred: “The smaller roads are now becoming heavily pedestrianised shopping centers where you can cross the road from one shop to the other on foot. We’re losing all our secondary roads and it is barely safe to drive more than 30km per hour,” he explains wistfully.
Today’s increasingly dangerous and stressful motoring has led Traficon’s managing director to the conclusion that three main areas need to be improved upon: cars, drivers and infrastructure. The latter is a particular bugbear: “If a vehicle has an accident and ends up on the opposite lane, then clearly the crash barriers are not up to scratch. In Belgium you see plenty of roads with a 90km/h speed limit and trees growing 30cms from the road: in that situation, sneezing is enough to kill you.”
To a man immersed in technology and logic, the lack of common sense at play is frustrating. And he is realistic about how long it will take to put things right: “The problem with safer infrastructure is that it takes more than 10 years to correct 30 years of letting these roads deteriorate.”
Creating safer drivers, however, could be more immediate: “We need better education and retesting every 10 years. Also vital is a driver’s license with points; as you make mistakes, you lose points until you have to re-take the license,” he says emphatically.
Encouraging drivers to obey the rules of the road – particularly those regarding speed – is a matter of enforcement. Versavel believes a more intelligent approach is needed: “If you drive on a deserted highway at 3am, speeding is stupid but you only harm yourself. But in an urban area, it becomes a dangerous activity for those around you. Safe speed is not only about lowering speeds.”
A strong advocate of personal freedom, he believes that providing drivers with useful, timely information is the key to improving their behavior. As such, he is pushing for more developments in this field: “The work Traficon does is to analyze traffic based on video images. The data we collect is used to help traffic managers; to provide them with more information on what’s happening on their roads. The next step is to get that information directly to the road user – what we call infrastructure to vehicle communication. The means we use to guide drivers today are passive road signs, variable message panels and intersection traffic lights; these are all installed at the roadside. People can get distracted by them and forget to concentrate on their actual driving, so if we bombard them with even more information outside the vehicle, we’ll distract them.”
So what is the best way to keep the driver up to date without undue distractions? Versavel believes that “with the coming technology and advanced displays, you could have a GPS that also gives local, real-time information. You can inform the driver so he can make the right choices.”
The argument is persuasive: imagine you are driving in an unfamiliar urban area. An interactive GPS that alerts you to the fact you will soon be approaching a school (and that allows you to moderate your behavior accordingly) would be far more effective than a big flashing sign a few meters away from those children.
Such a scenario is part of Versavel’s vision of future technical evolution. “Traficon started off by gathering data (e.g. speed, flow and occupancy), then we moved over to automatic incident detection where we detect stopped cars, wrong-way drivers and more. I believe that the next generation of products will be more geared towards automatic incident prevention – we will not drop the former two; however safe you make the roads, they will always need to be monitored – but will move toward helping the driver avoid danger. It’s all about informing road users of what’s ahead. If you alert a truck driver that traffic is queuing immediately in front of him and he needs to slow down now, then you can prevent him from plowing into the queue and you save lives; it’s that simple. Therefore intelligent cars, intelligent infrastructure and the ability to communicate between the two would be a great step forwards in road safety.”
Versavel’s personal desire is to see his company play a pioneering role in this evolution: “What we deliver is already a kind of intelligent infrastructure – we see what’s happening in a certain zone and if we can find a way to make the driver aware of it, that will save many lives. At the moment, we just deliver the data and it is down to other manufacturers to make sure the road users can access it. We provide the data and the images now, so we are halfway there already.”
With regard to intelligent vehicles, he is a fan of technologies such as in-built speed limiters, but not at the cost of human freedom: “I believe in intelligent speed adaptation, but with the ability for the driver to over-ride it. But it is about going further than building cars that are unable to break the speed limit: consider a system that nudges you below the limit as you move into a lower speed zone; now that’s an intelligent car!”
There has been much fanfare on vehicle-to-vehicle communication representing the path to future road safety, but Versavel is refreshingly honest on this: “It’s just one piece of the jigsaw; there’s no one solution that will bring a safer future. Look at seatbelts; they practically halved injuries, and then came ABS with all of its safety benefits. I think vehicle to vehicle communication will come; the problem is who will start it off.
“We already have some intelligent GPS being brought to cars – if this progresses swiftly, then some of the luxury brands will eventually begin to introduce vehicle-to-vehicle communications. We’ll reach a situation where if I want to drive to Brussels in say, a BMW, I can link it to another BMW that is also heading there, follow it at 30cms and sit back and read my newspaper in complete safety. Once the top brands start offering this, prices will fall and the technology will, in time, become accessible to all drivers.”
Much of Versavel’s forward thinking is focused on developments in the area of Vision Zero; originally a Swedish concept (in 1997 its Parliament introduced a policy that requires road deaths and serious injurious to be reduced to zero by 2020) but one that is also gathering momentum elsewhere. He believes Vision Zero is a good target, but not obtainable: “You can’t ever exclude all accidents – if a meteor were to fall on your car, then you’d have an accident! But the crucial thing is to keep trying.”
While developing countries will take time to go through the paradigm shifts experienced by the likes of Europe and the USA (and necessary to change the established thinking), developed countries do already regard reducing road deaths as a top priority. But Versavel is not naïve enough to think this is for purely altruistic reasons: “I see many reports on the financial cost to a country’s economy from deaths and serious injuries on the roads. Likewise, for any strategies to reduce these KSIs, cost is always a consideration. But there is never an acceptable trade-off for safety. Whether the motivation to reduce these figures is economic or philanthropic, the point is that even one death is one too many. We must do whatever it takes to stop people being killed on our roads.”
About Jo Versavel
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