Breaking barriers - empowering safety through research and engineering

National Highways Senior Research Engineer Nicolette Formosa becomes one of the Top 50 Women in Engineering

How does it feel to be one of the UK's Top 50 Women in Engineering?

Immensely proud, honoured – and also humbled to be standing alongside a remarkable cohort of inspiring women who are making a tangible difference in the world.

I hope my journey inspires more women to pursue Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) careers.

Together, we can create a thriving environment where everyone's contributions are valued and engineering knows no boundaries.

How did you first come to partner in research with National Highways?

My PhD research centred on developing algorithms that can effectively predict potential traffic conflicts on roads.

To be successful, these algorithms need to detect more than just direct risks. They should be able to identify potentially dangerous situations - and ways to avoid them. This type of technology is essential to the development of self-driving vehicles.

National Highways provided one of the key elements underpinning my PhD – data from the Motorway Detection and Automatic Signalling (MIDAS) system.

MIDAS is a network of sensors that collect traffic flow and speed data. National Highways Control Centres use this information to set variable message signs as well as advisory and manadatory speed limits.

I combined MIDAS information together with data collected on-road by an instrument-equipped vehicle. From this, I developed an artificial intelligence-based collision avoidance system with an accuracy rate exceeding 92%.

Where did your research take you next?

After my PhD, I embarked on a £1.2 million innovation project called Connected and Autonomous Vehicle Infrastructure Appraisal (CAVIAR) in partnership with National Highways and Innovate UK.

Using a state-of-the-art sensor equipped vehicle, we investigated how connected and autonomous vehicle behaviour could be affected by:

  • roadworks
  • lane markings
  • merging, and diverging sections of road

Understanding how these different factors affect the behaviour of connected and autonomous vehicles helps us enhance existing roads and plan for the future. It will prepare the way for safer, more efficient, and sustainable transportation systems.

This project marked a significant shift in my career. While working on it, I saw first-hand the how research, coupled with industry collaboration, can advance safety, efficiency, and innovation.

Why did you decide to join National Highways?

I wanted to translate my knowledge into practical application. That's why I decided to leave academia and join National Highways as a Senior Research Engineer.

It’s a key point in my career that has allowed me to bridge the gap between research and real-world impact.

I'm steadfast in my commitment to use knowledge, innovation, and collaboration to drive positive change - in the realm of road safety and beyond.

Looking ahead, I'm filled with anticipation. I feel like I'm using my expertise to help shape safer, more connected future.

Investing in research is not just a choice, it’s a necessity for any forward-thinking industry.

Learn more about the Women's Engineering Society.

Learn more about innovation and research at National Highways.