Making highways smarter

Reconsidering everyday materials such as the asphalt and road paint that make up our highways is opening the door to some exciting innovations. Highways in the future may soon start working harder and smarter for us – generating electricity, powering electric cars and responding to environmental phenomena such as snowstorms and thunderstorms. Materia reports on some of the designers and thinkers challenging ideas about the common roadway.

Smart Highways is a collaboration between designer Daan Roosegaarde and Dutch infrastructure company Heijmans that is exploring innovative concepts for the smart roads of tomorrow. To date, innovation on the roads has focused extensively on the design of vehicles. But Smart Highways think that perhaps it is the highway itself that should first change. “Look at the way highways currently look,” says Roosegaarde. “Isn’t it strange that there are ‘slippery road’ signs even in the summer. In this project the road itself becomes an interface, so it signposts itself ‘I’m hot’, ‘I’m new’, ‘I’m smooth’, ‘I’m dangerous’, replacing all those signs.” Heijmans and Studio Roosegaarde’s proposals include innovating the road deck itself with glow-in-the-dark road markings, interactive streetlights, battery-charging e-lanes and illuminated weather warnings. Their goal is to make the road more sustainable and interactive by employing smart lighting, energy harvesting strategies and traffic signs that adapt to changing road conditions.

Smart Highways’ first pilot project is being unveiled this year in the Netherlands. Along a 150 yard strip of road, green photoluminescent markings will be painted onto the road surface. These markings not only save lighting costs but also increase road safety by improving visibility at night. The composition of the photoluminescent paint is being kept a secret, but it is understood to be similar to paint used on glow-in-the-dark toys. The idea is that the road markings will be charged by sunlight during the day and headlights throughout the night. After dark, the road markings, which include lane indicators and emergency shoulders will glow green. Green was chosen because it is the easiest colour to see in the dark.

Smart Highways also plans in the future to make use of thermo-sensitive paints (the composition of which is also a secret) by painting the road surface with giant snowflakes. These snowflakes will appear when the temperature falls below the freezing point, warning drivers that the road surface may be slippery.

Roosegaard also envisions priority highway lanes in the future that can charge battery-powered cars while in motion by using underground induction coils. Does it all sound too good to be true? Perhaps, but the concept of ´intelligent´ highways seems to have traction.

Solar highways are coming to America
American inventors Julie and Scott Brusaw received a $750,000 grant in 2009 to explore their idea that the road surface can be made out of solar cells that not only provide electricity and save oil but also melt winter snowfall and reduce road accidents. The Brusaws are aware that their vision cannot be built in a day so they decided to start small – with footpaths, cycle paths and the parking lots of supermarkets. This spring, a pilot project testing their concept on the surface of a parking lot was approved to be installed near the Canadian border in Sandpoint, Idaho. They ultimately hope to see their invention applied to roads and highways around the world.

Their idea is pretty simple. Wherever roads are laid, solar panels could be installed instead. These panels generate electricity, which in turn is fed into the Grid. Basically oil can be saved twice: firstly, with the energy produced by the solar panels, electric cars could be charged. Secondly, the petroleum required for the production of asphalt roads can also be saved. On top of that, these solar roadways can be heated and equipped with integrated LEDs. These act not only as a pavement marking, but can also show road warnings directly on the highway´s surface.

Creating a replacement to asphalt involved a number of design hurdles. One particular challenge was ensuring that the solar panel surface was as safe to drive on as a normal asphalt road, even in the rain. In order to do so, a glass was developed that is as hard as steel, but not smooth. John Brusaw explains that this surface has little resemblance to the glass we know from standard windows but it is technically a glass.

The structure of a highway solar module is always the same and consists of three parts: the top of the hard layer of glass with solar panels, LED lights and heating. Then follows the second layer, in which the controller is accommodated. This includes a microprocessor unit that activates the light and communicates with the road modules. The base, the bottom layer, ensures that the current is collected above is directed to charging stations for electric cars. In addition, there is space for other cables such as television or telephone lines. All the elements combine to create an intelligent network of roads that can even warn the driver of danger around the next bend with its LED lights. The Brusaws have developed the system even further to include channels on the sides of the modules that collect and filter water runoff. Thus water is not lost, but can serve as agriculture for irrigation of fields.

But is there a catch? For starters, the solar panels would be three times as expensive as conventional roads. But the Brusaws calculate that beyond the initial investment, such a system could begin to turn a profit over the years. It seems that smarter, more intelligent highways could make driving cars the cleaner and safer transport of the future!

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