The article below was originally published by The Times on Saturday 9 November 2019. It explores how removing signs from our roads will reduce costs, increase connectivity and improve safety.

Speed limits to be beamed into cars on sign‑free roads

Signs could be removed from the side of major roads within eight years under government-backed plans to beam speed limits and traffic information directly into cars, experts said.

A trial of super fast 5G wifi will be introduced next year to enable roads to communicate directly with cars, ultimately making road signs redundant.

Experts behind the trials said drivers could expect to see “naked highways” from 2027 as road signs were decommissioned and information was displayed on digital units within cars. It could ultimately pave the way for some traffic lights to be removed. Live on-road trials will be developed over the next year in parts of Birmingham, Coventry and Greenwich, southeast London, as well as at the Millbrook vehicle testing ground in Bedfordshire.

The move comes amid concerns about pointless signs littering roadsides. A government report last year estimated that the number of signs had doubled in 20 years to 4.6 million, with motoring groups estimating that as many as a third were of little use.

It is hoped that the move away from signs will improve road safety by allowing cars to get information about road conditions and accidents more quickly. It is also expected to cut costs for highways authorities. Local authorities spend hundreds of thousands of pounds a year repairing and updating signage, with costs running into the millions on motorways and A-roads.

Daniel Ruiz, the Chief Executive of Zenzic, the company behind the development, said: “The objective is to put in technology that leads to the longer term objective of taking signs out. We reckon that by 2027 we will no longer be reliant on physical roadside signage.”

Zenzic is a public-private partnership established to drive the development of autonomous cars in Britain. It is funded through a £100 million government grant and £100 million from the automotive and technology industries.

It has created a series of “testbeds” on public and private roads to test self-driving and “connected” vehicles.

A 5G broadband network to communicate with cars will allow for advanced signalling displaying speed limits, highways exits and traffic updates in cars. Highways England has begun a trial of similar technology on the A2 and M2.

A plan published by Zenzic said that it expected signage to start to become digitised by 2022, with the “initial decommissioning of signs and signals beginning in 2027”. The widespread adoption of in-car signalling would be expected by the end of the next decade.

It is expected that vehicles will have far more autonomous technology in the coming years so information about road conditions will be fed directly into the in-car computer system and used to navigate, or control the speed, without input from the driver. Some other vehicles on which the driver retains more control will probably display the same information on the dashboard infotainment system. Drivers of vintage cars without digital displays would need to continue using road signs, suggesting that it will be many decades before signs are eliminated altogether.