The A14 does not have the historical resonance of the A1, nor the romance of the M6. It certainly doesn’t attract the same level of hostility as the M25. What it does, usually without fuss for its 127 miles, is connect the port of Felixstowe with the M1/M6 interchange near Rugby. As a result, it is probably one of the most important (and congested) arterial routes in England.
That workmanlike status is about to change. Under a major infrastructure project just announced, the A14 is about to become - literally - an information superhighway. As part of the Smart Transport Internet of Things Data Ecosystem (Stride), BT, the Department of Transport and a Cambridge-based start-up called Neul are to put sensors in place along a 50-mile stretch which will track vehicle movements via mobile phones in passing traffic. In the first phase, this will build a picture of the loads and speeds on the road, potentially forming the basis for a whole raft of future services, up to and including self-driving smart cars.
Big data infrastructure projects of this sort are usually announced in California (which recently introduced a law to permit those self-driving cars, currently being tested by Google) rather than Suffolk. So it is remarkable that such a future-focused plan should be unveiled right on my own doorstep.
An important feature of the A14 activity is that it will not require billions of pounds to be spent installing hardware - the idea is to use cheap radio stations that can be fitted to existing locations and use the “white space” between TV signals for data transmissions, rather than expensive mobile frequencies. That might point the way for other, similar projects which are sustainable and affordable in the same way.
Understanding traffic movements on the road is a critical first step. Users already know the challenges of peak-time traffic around Cambridge or the Copdock Interchange, but building hard evidence in the form of a database showing what was where will inform future decisions more accurately.
Some questions remain. Firstly, there is inevitably a privacy issue if drivers are having their mobiles “pinged” so their vehicle can be tracked in this way. It is probably no coincidence that the A14 is also being considered for the introduction of tolls - if it becomes, in effect, a private road, the terms and conditions of usage may well include agreeing to the collection of this data. The upside is that the big data collected by Stride could help to optimise pricing, keeping the road affordable for local users while optimising revenues from commercial traffic.
Secondly, there is the question of whether this data will be made open. If drivers are to make their journeys more efficient, being able to use an app that takes open data from Stride and models it to predict when the road will be clear would be a major advantage. Without adopting this model, the project could risk limiting its potential adoption rate (and acceptance of data collection in the first place).
Thirdly, much has been written about a future of smart cars that drive themselves, taking over from the human driver if conditions require it. Aside from the desirability - and legality - of that power shift, it assumes the presence of the right computer chips in all traffic. As older vehicles are taken off the road, it becomes ever more likely that these will be present - even my 11 year-old Mini has an onboard computer. Whether all vehicles could be retrofitted is more doubtful. So what would happen to a line of traffic if half of it suddenly gets its speed managed automatically while the other half remains under human control?
All of these questions are best addressed in the context of a live test, which makes the A14 project particularly exciting. It may make the future of driving smart - or it could leave the driverless car on the lot with those other unrealised technologies, the hover car and personal helicopter.
Technology is changing the way we all work. Which means your business has to rethink how it is organised and what the people within it are doing. Disruptive trends may look challenging, but they can also be harnessed to new methods of value creation. To find out more, hear from Dave Coplin, chief envisioning officer, advertising and online, Microsoft at this year’s DataIQ Future Summit on 15th October. For tickets, go to http://www.dqmgroup.com/future2013