Smart motorways and lessons for tech adoption

In the UK at least, the implementation of smart motorways has been a curious story to follow, and I think in its roll-out and reaction there is much that can be learnt for technology adoption across higher ed.

First up, what are “smart” motorways anyway? They are “a section of a motorway that uses traffic management methods to increase capacity and reduce congestion in particularly busy areas.” There are three types of them:

  • Controlled Motorways – these keep the hard shoulder but have additional technology such as variable and mandatory speed limits to control the speed of traffic. They can also be widened sometimes to have an extra lane.
  • Dynamic Hard Shoulder (DHS) Running Motorways – these temporarily increase capacity by utilising the hard shoulder at peak times.¬†They also have emergency areas (EAs) providing a safe place to stop in an emergency.
  • All Lane Running (ALR) Motorways – these apply permanently convert the hard shoulder as a running lane to increase capacity.¬†They also have emergency areas and stopped vehicle detection (SVD) technology. It is this version that many people think of, and which has attracted the most criticism.

A lot of money (and traffic queuing due to disruption) has been spent on implementing smart motorways, but the rollout of the last category of ALR smart motorways was paused following safety concerns. The Daily Mail and Liz Truss are strongly opposed to smart motorways, which makes you feel there must be some merit in them. So let’s look at the issues and any lessons they may for ed tech.

Emotion can trump evidence – the first round of safety data reveals that of the three smart motorways types, the ALR ones are lowest for personal injury collisions, but highest for killed or serious injury collisions. So, it seems that they’re very good at controlling traffic to prevent bumps and shunts, but if someone breaks down and uses the hard shoulder to stop, then it can be fatal. But, ALL versions of smart motorways are safer for all types of collision when compared with conventional motorways. However, much of the reaction against smart motorways is an emotional one, people feel safer with a hold shoulder (I know I do), and it may be that no amount of hard data can overcome this.
From an ed tech perspective this means that you shouldn’t underestimate the emotional reaction to technology. This can be both simultaneously perfectly valid (getting killed on a hard shoulder), and irrational (the data shows they’re safer than the motorways you’ve always used). Ed tech can feel threatening and raise legitimate concerns (eg lecture capture and professionalism) but also be irrational (the lecture model was never that great to start with). Balancing these two takes careful negotiation.

The push and pull of ‘smart’ – adding ‘smart’ to something makes it immediately appealing to many people. Smart cars, smart phones, smart motorways. The combination of smart cars and smart motorways might well end up being safer and keep traffic running more smoothly, but removing the hard shoulder doesn’t seem very smart when you need it. For other people (eg Daily Mail readers), adding smart to anything may as well be calling it woke.
From an ed tech perspective we’ve witnessed the lure of the latest thing many times, with the ‘get on the bus or lose out” mantra for MOOCs, AI, learning analytics, etc. These can cause both camps to retrench to very pro and anti views. The language around this stuff is important.

Efficiency as priority – smart motorways are quite appealing to accountants and planners. There is this lane that is unused on nearly all motorways. We could increase capacity, reduce queuing, improve air quality simply by opening it up. Duh, why did no-one think of this before? But many systems need inefficiency built into them to deal with unexpected circumstances. You don’t need a hard shoulder, until you really need a hard shoulder. An inefficient system is not necessarily a bad system.
Higher education has a lot of inefficiencies in it, and the appeal of ed tech is often to eliminate or reduce these. Sometimes that’s useful, but often what appear to be inefficiencies are deliberately inbuilt systems of care.

Short-term solutionism – part of the drive for smart motorways is to alleviate road congestion. Part of the reason we have road congestion is because of a failure to invest in public transport and a nationalised system that makes it a priority and affordable. It’s simply easier and much cheaper to drive most of the time. However, when Daily Mail readers bemoan these bloody stupid motorways, how many are also calling for their taxes to be spent on public transport? So smart motorways are a part-solution to a problem, but they’re not the fix.
There are of course many ways we could apply this to ed tech. For instance, allying with third party content vendors may be a good fix for immediate online delivery, but doesn’t develop staff expertise.

Over-promise of a reasonable idea – in general, smart motorways are a sensible thing to do largely (although I’m not convinced by the ALR versions) and will be part of a more data driven network. But the promise of them has been oversold somewhat, at least in the short term, and there is a reaction against this.
Of course, we know that ed tech is never over-sold (ahem), but if it were to happen, then what might follow is a backlash and growing cynicism around ‘next big thingism’ instead of a more student-focused appropriate application mindset.

Smart motorways are probably a good idea in the long run, but they need to be implemented carefully and with an appropriate eye on the data, while simultaneously investing in better forms of public transport. You can slot in the ed tech equivalent and higher ed version into a version of that sentence for likely any tech (try it with ChatGPT for instance).

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