Traffic, technology and information: the soul of the highway network
Interview with Autostrade per l’Italia
By Paolo Berti and Massimo Iossa
The highway network is a bit like the major arteries and veins of the human body: just as their task is to rapidly convey circulating blood, likewise highways have to deliver goods and people as quickly and safely as possible. But to function properly, highways, like all infrastructures, require timely emergency management, ongoing maintenance, and continuous work of adaptation to and evolution of new technological standards and regulations. And, in order to do this, everything needs to be kept under control. Upon entering the various offices of Autostrade per l’Italia that look after traffic and our safety (Operations Coordination, the Traffic Center, and CNEV – the National Coordination of Traffic Emergencies), you really get the feeling of a total control: computer screens are at center stage in this unit, transmitting images of the entire highway network which are monitored meticulously.
The network with a thousand eyes
The highway network of Autostrade per l’Italia is very extensive, branching across a complex and varied territory, not to mention that sections of its highway were built in different periods. The numbers concerning the traffic are also very high: in 2016, over 884 million vehicles (including 17.5% of heavy vehicles) travelled on it, covering more than 46 billion kilometers.
Therefore, managing traffic flow is not easy: “Our biggest challenge is ensuring the performance of the Operations in maintaining the continuity of the highway traffic service and minimizing any inconvenience for customers on the road,” says Paolo Berti (Autostrade per l’Italia Chief Operations & Maintenance Officer). “So we assist with supporting the section managements in planning construction sites that can have a high impact on traffic, in the analysis of accidents in the winter, of exceptional transit, or agreements with the organizations for mechanical breakdown. In addition, with regard to inter-regional emergency events (widespread snowfall, summer vacation departures), our unit is entrusted with the management of the CNEV Room, large premises where cameras focused on individual sections of the highway transmit the situation onto the screens, thus allowing us to control them in detail. “This is where we support the section managements, monitoring so that everything is run according to operational standards and with an overview, for example by identifying alternate long-distance routes or coordinating the transfer of resources to the section managements most affected by the event.”
Although Italy is known abroad as the country of sun, in recent years we have seen heavy snowfalls on highways, and therefore the presence of an internal weather service, in addition to the institutional ones, is fundamental in order to ensure the most accurate predictions in the management of snow events. “In recent years, we have recorded up to 260,000 hours snow km (indicator that measures the duration and extent of the snowfall) in a single winter season. We have approximately 240,000 tons of salt for treating road surfaces during snow events, stored in 9 strategic deposits (hubs) and 140 tactical deposits (snow places), we have a fleet of 2,000 snow removal vehicles (snow plows, salt spreaders, and special vehicles) along the entire highway network, and up to 5,000 people (both internal operators and employees of external companies) are employed in the critical phases.”
Investments and continuous technological installations on the entire network are indispensable for being able to guarantee the safety of all of us: the Safety Tutor covers more than 2,500 kilometers of roadways, there are 1,781 variable message signs, and 3,989 cameras monitoring traffic.
The ongoing commitment that Autostrade per l’Italia has exerted on improving safety has produced outstanding results. In the period following the privatization of the Company (since 1999), the mortality rate (number of deaths per 100 million kilometers traveled) on our network has in fact been reduced by 80%, thereby in 2008 already reaching the objectives set by the third European Road Safety Action Programme 2001-2010. The reduction in the mortality rate compared to 1999 is equivalent to over 300 lives saved each year.
One of the key factors is the great amount of information that is managed and which allows Operations Coordination to monitor in real-time. The use of computer systems is essential for the acquisition of information in the field and processing it. “The management of road use, both centrally and regarding the sections, requires the use of many cutting-edge tools, all developed by a Group company, Autostrade Tech,” states Berti. “In particular, there is the Traffic Information System into which all the news on traffic events converges, coming from multiple distributed sources (cameras, traffic monitoring sensors, emergency telephones, personnel operating in traffic activities, traffic police, the drivers themselves, etc.), to monitor the entire highway network. The moment an event is detected, it is entered into the system and from there it is managed until its resolution by coordinating the necessary activities in the territory. Meanwhile, highway users are informed in real time about what is happening thanks to the variable message signs (VMS) and the many TV and radio stations used (Isoradio, RTL 102.5, MyWay broadcast on Sky, the new MyWay app for Apple and Android smartphones, etc.).”
Created in partnership with Sky Italia, since December 2013 MyWay has aired every day year-round on the weather channel of the Sky platform, SkyMeteo24, and the news channel SkyTG24, which is now also being broadcast with the main editions of the news on the DTT channel 27. There are 30 daily broadcasts in all and, from Monday to Friday on SkyTG24, two of them focus on roads around large cities. MyWay can be viewed on the website of SkyTG24 at www.autostrade.it, as well as in the dining areas of the main service stations of the highway network (more than 100), thanks to the TV channel Infomoving. “The idea of bringing traffic information onto TV took shape in 2013, when Autostrade per l’Italia reconstructed a mapping of user needs,” explains Massimo Iossa (Autostrade per l’Italia Head of Marketing Department and responsible for My Way Channel). “We found that, just as people check the weather on television before embarking on an important trip or simply before starting their day, likewise there is a need for traffic forecasts on what you may find after getting into your car.”
Before MyWay, traffic information had been almost exclusively broadcast on the radio. Today, thanks to the constant contact daily with the network’s nine radio rooms and a capillary network of cameras (with more than a thousand focused on Italian highways) we can know in detail what is happening and what will happen and therefore tell you the evolution of news with texts written by our editorial team. “This is what MyWay does. It tries to understand how motorists are moving on the motorway network, something that Autostrade per l’Italia has already been doing to solve problems, and what is about to happen on the road network,” Iossa continued. “ “We cannot stop at just a description of the situation at a given time.We need to communicate to travellers – and especially those who are about to set out – how a congestion situation is being handled by our operational teams and emergency vehicles, how long it will take to get back to normal, and the alternative routes that we can recommend to avoid it. All this even before leaving.” From this point of view, MyWay is much more than traffic information. With MyWay, Autostrade per l’Italia is a public service offering information and a culture of prevention.
But the real challenge is to accompany all Italians with a lightweight and fast system of information dissemination: this is why Autostrade per l’Italia launched the app My Way, which now numbers more than 1 million download, through which you can use the MyWay links from smartphones and tablets, with real-time updates every half hour, just like on TV.