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Smart highways of the future: Roads that light up, electricity-generating pavement and more

Roadways are being developed that would provide charging for vehicles as they drive, but that is just one concept for the roadway of the future.

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Technology is reshaping different facets of the transportation industry, right from improving the operational efficiency of trucks, to piloting assistive technologies to help truckers on the road. But then, there has been no visible improvement in the medium over which millions of trucks ply every day - the asphalt roads.

Roads across the world have remained the same, been laid out in a similar fashion and have not undergone any functional changes over decades at a stretch. But the situation is slowly getting a facelift, with research labs across the world working on introducing electrically smart roads into the primitive niche.

In light of this, IDTechEx, a strategic business decision-making company from the United Kingdom, recently released a report titled “Electrically Smart Roads 2018-2028”, which discusses in detail the people behind the technology and also forecasts the potential businesses that could result from such initiatives.

FreightWaves spoke with Peter Harrop, Chairman of IDTechEx to understand the significance of such projects on revitalizing road infrastructure. “When we started looking at smart roads, we were surprised to see the number of people working in the field. We thought the price of such projects might be high, but the technology has progressed far more than we realized,” he says. “Roads with solar panels are so rugged that you can run a truck over them and they would not be damaged.”

Most of the projects that work on electrically smart roads exist in Europe, with a bulk of it coming from France and the Netherlands. The French, for instance, are working on implementing solar panels over bus shelters by the side of roads and using the generated electricity to power street lights and light emitting advertisements at night.      

“There is serious amounts of electricity that can be produced on a few kilometers of road and its surroundings. The Missouri Department of Transportation in the U.S. is looking at using solar panels for de-icing, frost and snow removal on the roads,” explains Harrop. “If you don’t have ice and snow on the roads, you can reduce car accidents, and more people can get to work without problems.”

In the Middle East, Israel is investing heavily in smart roads, with it developing machines that can bury coils that can store electricity in asphalt. The coils can facilitate contactless charging of vehicles through electricity generated on the road. The rate at which the hybrid roads are laid is astounding at the very least, with 1.25 miles being laid per day. The road has the capacity to charge an electric car traveling at 70 miles per hour with 20 kW.

“What makes this interesting is that you put all the layers together and create electricity in the same place where you are going to use it,” adds Harrop. “For example, there is work being demonstrated on zebra crossings. We can see how many people are trying to cross and the zebra crossing gets five times as big if there are a lot of people crossing, so that it is obvious that all are on the zebra crossing.”

In Sweden, there are enormous animals like the moose that cross the roads and kill a lot of people who inadvertently drive into them in the middle of the night. Hitting a moose is akin to driving a car into a tree, since it destroys the car and in some cases is fatal to humans. By creating ways through which roads could generate their own electricity, the asphalt could be made to light up under the moose when it crosses, making it noticeable from a distance, thus saving countless lives.

When questioned about the feasibility of these projects in Western European countries like Sweden and the Netherlands that are much colder and darker than their Middle Eastern counterparts like Israel and Saudi Arabia, Harrop is positive of their prospects.

“The solar power is really not about the sun, but is infrared, ultraviolet, and visible rays, which is more than what people think,” he says. “For example, Canada, which is a very cold country, has invested millions of dollars into building an inflatable aircraft that can carry 35 metric tons of weight, powered solely by solar energy. They call this the truck of the future. If Canadians can put solar panels on an aircraft as a sole way of replacing a truck, we should not worry too much about colder countries not being able to use solar energy.”

Research is undertaken to harness wind energy on the sides of roads which could be used to illuminate road signs and zebra crossings. Rotating masts at the road medians are made to spin by traffic rushing across both sides of the road, producing electricity. Though the energy that would be generated by a single mast would be minimal and to the tune of 1 kW, it could potentially be huge when collectively done over many miles.

“We don’t believe that all these projects will succeed, but they do add some very interesting perspectives. Just by utilizing electricity more efficiently, we could save 43% of the world’s power,” notes Harrop. “Though it has nothing to do specifically with roads, that is the big picture and roads are a part of it.”

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