The 5 innovations that will revolutionise the way we interact with our roads
If our current roads were to go to school, they would almost certainly come home with a report card that says, “immensely practical but often absent and inherently stupid”.
Let’s face it, the lumps of Tarmac and miles of metal that connect our towns and cities aren’t exactly giving much back to society, bar the ability to see friends, family and colleagues without traversing a muddy field.
But that’s all about to change, as technology steps in to ensure the road networks we regularly use are giving something back by generating electricity, offering up-to-the-minute information and communicating directly with vehicles.
Below are the five innovations that will revolutionise our relationship with the road.
1. Photo-luminescent surfaces
Rather than simply painting lines on the surface of the road, Dutch design house Studio Roosegaarde has been working on ways to make paint more intelligent.
Its specially developed photo-luminescent paints can soak up the sun’s rays during the day and then glow brightly in the dark. They can also react to changes in temperature to display a number of warning messages to drivers.
For example, should the mercury drop below freezing, the paint can depict large snowflakes on the Tarmac to warn drivers of slippery conditions.
Studio Roosegaarde already has a number of photo-luminescent roads currently in operation around the Netherlands and has found the reflective surfaces have reduced the need for energy-sapping street lighting in the area.
Next on the agenda is wind-powered roadside lamps that can sense a car approaching and increase light intensity accordingly.
2. Intelligent Highways
Keeping a road moving as efficiently as possible is a problem that faces governments across the world, and with some 36 million cars currently tootling around UK; it’s a problem we all encounter on a daily basis.
Smart roads could be the answer, as they will allow authorities to share information between road furniture and next-gen vehicles. In the near future, roadside “listening stations” will be erected that can download information from in-car GPS systems to determine the flow of the traffic in the local area.
A number of major European manufacturers have already set up the Car 2 Car Consortium, which is busily working out how web-enabled vehicles can share important information between the Highways Agency and surrounding traffic.
Honda, Siemens, Cohda Wireless and semiconductor manufacturer NXP have also introduced the intelligent Transport Systems (ITS) Corridor that spans Germany, Austria and the Netherlands.
The ITS Corridor uses Near Field Communication chips embedded in important pieces of road furniture, such as traffic lights and road signs, to relay vital information to cars with a built-in receiver.
It also gives the road furniture a brain and allows smart traffic lights, for example, to change their phasing to improve the flow of traffic or give priority to chip-enabled buses and even halt traffic should an emergency vehicle approach the area.
3. Modular Road Surfaces
Currently, when a section of road is damaged and needs replacing, it requires extensive closure of the area around it. Modular surfaces would allow a broken section to be replaced quickly and easily.
Better still, each section will contain communication technology that can relay information about its health and condition to the relevant authorities. These sections could also be made of a hydrophobic material, which would repel water and reduce the amount of maintenance required, especially in the winter months.
Solar Roadways, an American firm that raised money through crowdfunding site IndieGoGo, has also embarked on a project that sees modular roads made up of intelligent solar panels replace traditional Tarmac.
Each panel can harness the sun’s rays and feed energy back into the grid, they can be heated to melt snow and ice and they contain LED technology, which will put an end to traditional road markings.
Panels of this kind mean that roads can quickly and easily be adapted to suit different situations i.e. adding or removing parking bays and double yellow lines would require a simple change to the computer software that controls the lighting panels.
4. Induction charging
Electric car uptake is on the rise, yet finding a place to charge said vehicle still proves tricky, especially if you live outside of the busy cities. Induction charging could take the hassle out of electric vehicle ownership by theoretically topping up the batteries as an EV travels over the road surface.
It would require the current technology to be refined somewhat, as the systems used BMW and Daimler require an induction-enabled vehicle to hover directly over a plate in order for electricity to be transferred electromagnetically.
But the Transport Research Laboratory here in the UK is currently experimenting with roads that contain lengths of coiled wire to enable wireless power transfer. Based on a similar experiment in South Korea that currently powers buses along a set route, the coils create an electromagnetic field between themselves and the coil in the car to allow wireless charging to take place.
However, the technology is not expected to land before 2020 but bespoke parking spaces with induction charging technology will begin to spring up at motorway service stations over the coming years.
5. Connected Cars
Many of the largest automotive manufacturers have stated that by the year 2020, we will see autonomous cars on our roads. But the technology in the cars is just the beginning, as these vehicles will need constant feedback from the road network in order to operate safely and efficiently.
Volvo is currently running a number of driverless vehicles on the streets of Gothenburg that are hooked up to a wireless network similar to the WLAN we all know and use today.
Transmitters embedded in the road network allow the car to receive information about speed limits, obstructions and potential hazards and adapt its driving style to suit the situation.
Volvo’s cars can potentially sense when an emergency services vehicle is in the vicinity, locate vulnerable road users that wear the recognised chip technology and receive information from traffic lights to ensure the car is at the correct speed to breeze through the green phase.