Case Study - DfT/HA: Virtual Motorway Simulator

Client: Department for Transport (DfT)
Sector: the transport sector, central government
Services delivered: overview , mentoring & training , research & innovation

VR view of the M42 during snow

Virtual motorways to help manage real life jams

Active Traffic Management (ATM) on the UK’s M42 motorway has shown how the ‘managed motorway’ approach delivers reduced congestion, better journey times and improved local air quality. This is achieved by using measures such as opening up the hard shoulder and introducing variable speed limits at peak times. Decisions made by Highways Agency traffic controllers are crucial to the effectiveness of the approach. The aims of the project were to develop a prototype procedural trainer for traffic controllers and explore the capabilities of synthetic environment (SE) technology in transport.

The result was VRSiMM (Virtual Reality Simulation in Motorway Management) which comprises:

  • a Traffic Flow Model developed by Risk Solutions and
  • a state-of-the-art SE visualisation engine and procedural trainer/user interface developed by Maelstrom Virtual Productions Ltd.

Dr Mark Young (a Human Factors expert from Brunel University) provided expert advice on driver behaviour.

Traffic Flow Model

The traffic flow model simulates the flow of individual vehicles over the ATM section of the M42. Individual vehicles are modelled, each governed by specific rules (based on vehicle type and driver characteristics) to control its acceleration, desired speed, braking, headway and lane changing behaviour. Crucially, these rules are modified as traffic or environmental conditions change, speed limits are imposed and lanes are opened/closed.

The model generates real-time information on the location and speed of each vehicle (for use by the synthetic environment), and average speed and flow information for sections of the route.

Synthetic Environment

The SE software presents a photo-realistic Virtual Reality version of the route, created using orthographically corrected satellite imagery in combination with digital terrain mapped landscape tiles. All signage, both temporary and permanent, overhead ATM speed and text displays (with active screen areas) are modelled. The road user population comprises a number of high detail vehicle models including lorries, cars, vans and motorcycles. The SE allows a range of environmental conditions to be simulated including light levels (day, dawn/dusk or night) and weather conditions (fog, rain or snow) with associated degrees of visibility.

Procedural Trainer

The training system comprises a desk unit and two workstations:

  • The instructor’s console which allows an instructor to create scenarios, change environmental conditions, create incidents and start/pause/rewind the exercise.
  • The traffic controller workstation provides real time traffic flow data, views from any of the 200+ CCTV cameras on the route and the ability to change speed limits, create message signs and open the hard shoulder to traffic.

The project was procured through the Technology Strategy Board's Small Business Research Initiative and has been selected as one of the TSB 's case study projects.


"An impressive and high quality piece of innovative research delivered to a tight timescale. I was particularly impressed by the speed with which the team developed a working solution in an area that was new and challenging." Mike Bull, NIU Team Leader

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