New service stations, wireless recharging, renewable energy throughout the road network and smart road markings. These are just some of the innovations that will characterise the highways of the future, places where cars will talk with each other and the infrastructure, exchanging information about the traffic, the weather and the health of bridges and tunnels. And in winter, panels under the tarmac will melt away snow and ice. The future of mobility is at hand and innovations are on the way to make our roads safer and more sustainable. Here are some.
The new service stations
The future of highways starts in the service stations. The traditional ones are essential rest areas for cars, drivers and passengers, where motorists can stop to refuel, stretch their legs, shop and enjoy a quick meal. They are generally spaced some 30 to 40 kilometres apart and are also used as parking and rest areas for cars and heavy vehicles, during long trips, without having to leave the highway.
The service stations of the future will have much of the same functions but the types of services they offer and the energy sources that power them will almost certainly be different. The most important new feature will be that of fast-recharging stations for electric vehicles so motorists can top up the energy of their car while having a break or enjoying a refreshment. The stop can last from 15 to 30 minutes, the time needed for ultra-fast recharges. The recharging stations will need to be placed about 90 kilometres from each other to provide a widespread and efficient distribution network, capable of supplying electric vehicles during long journeys.
One of the pioneers of a European network of electric fast charging stations is Fastned, present in the Netherlands, Germany, the United Kingdom, Belgium and Switzerland. The company specialises in developing and operating scalable fast charging infrastructure in Europe where drivers can charge their electric vehicle with up to 300 km of range in 15 minutes before continuing their journey. At Fastned stations electric drivers can use Autocharge, they plug in the cable into their car and the charging starts automatically, no charge card needed. The charger recognizes the car.
Ionity, a joint venture of BMW, Ford, Hyundai, Mercedes and the Volkswagen Group, is moving along the same lines. The aim is to build a European high-power (up to 350 kW) charging network for electric vehicles along major highways and in large shopping centres. This will facilitate long-distance travel and the high power will reduce the charging time to a minimum.
Credits - Fastned
In the more distant future, electric vehicles could be recharged on the highway while the move, without having to stop at a service station at all. This is the project that engineer Shanhui Fan and his PhD student Sid Assawaworrarit are working on at Stanford University, California. Their charging system takes its cue from wireless mobile phone charging technology in which electricity is transmitted directly to stationary objects within a radius of fewer than 30 centimetres.
The challenge is to transmit electricity to a moving vehicle. An experiment was performed on an LED bulb, powered at a maximum distance of one metre from the charging source. Fan's research team postulates that by modifying radio waves it would be able to send energy from a transmitting coil to a receiving coil installed on moving objects. At the same time, the transfer distance and power would have to be increased to be able to power a car as well. The aim is to be able to use this technology directly in the construction of roads one day to send energy to electric cars as they are driving along.
Renewable energy for the entire road network
The energy produced from renewable sources will be used to illuminate tunnels, power road signs and switch traffic lights on and off. One of the most interesting projects is Solar Roadways, the brainchild of American environmentalist couple Julie and Scott Brusaw. Their idea is to pave highways with solar panels sturdy enough to support the passage of vehicles. They estimate that if panels were installed throughout today's U.S. highway network, it would be able to generate enough power to meet the electricity demand of the United States three times over. The benefit would be twofold, because the entire highway network would be renovated and because clean energy would be generated and fed into the power grid guaranteeing an economic return on the investment.
The panels distributed along the entire network would create a new, alternative electricity distribution network, safer than the existing one, built with pylons and cables. It would be able to bring electricity to service stations for recharging electric vehicles and powering other services, as well as buildings and homes located along the highways. The panel efficiency increases according to their exposure to the sun, while the system efficiency is guaranteed by the energy storage system to release stored energy at night or on overcast days.
No more icy roads
Icy or snowy roads are perhaps one of the greatest dangers for motorists on highways. An idea by Eurovia could make these hazards a distant memory. Eurovia is a company of the French Vinci group involved in designing, building and maintaining infrastructure. Back in 2012, the company's engineers started the design of Power Road, an innovative heat exchanger made with recyclable materials that, placed under the road surface, can collect the thermal energy from the sun accumulated in the tarmac during hot weather and store it underground through a complementary geothermal system. The stored heat can be drawn for infrastructure maintenance (for instance after snowfalls) and heating surrounding buildings during winter. This technology has been successfully tested and applied in parking lots. Experiments will soon be carried out on larger and larger areas.
Credits - Eurovia VINCI
Road markings become smart
At the moment it is a pilot project in the Netherlands but soon we could see the broken lane road surface markings turn into continuous lines to prohibit overtaking between vehicles on all roads in case of rain or snow. A stylised snowflake could appear on the road in case of ice to invite drivers to slow down and pay extra attention. And road markings could become fluorescent at nightfall. But how is this possible? Artist Daan Roosegaarde and construction company Heijmans created Glowing Lines, an initiative that is part of the Smart Highway project, for the first time in the Netherlands. It is a road marking system with special paint that collects energy during the day and surrenders light at night. The goal of these fluorescent lines is to increase road markings visibility and make travelling safer at night or in critical weather conditions. Glowing Lines are already in operation on the N329 in Oss in the Netherlands and the Dutch Minister of Infrastructure asked Studio Roosegaarde to create a new Smart Highway project for the iconic 32-kilometre-long Afsluitdijk dam.
Credits - Studio Roosegaarde
Vehicles and infrastructure that talk to each other
Cars sending signals to each other, bridges talking and updating us on their condition and tunnels sending out an alarm when water seepage becomes a threat. It is not a dream or a vision, it is the Internet of Things and it will come true in a few years from now. The Internet of Things (IoT) refers to connectivity to the Internet by any object. Highways, using Artificial Intelligence and IoT, will have dynamic signs and vehicles will communicate with each other and with the infrastructure. By taking various factors, like climate, traffic and road surface conditions, into account, it will be possible to adjust safety distances between vehicles and adapt speed limits, increase or decrease the width of the carriageway and change its direction. All this will be made possible by the sensors positioned on the entire highway ecosystem that will communicate with each other through the new ultra-broadband 5G mobile network.
It will allow motorists to travel in optimal safety conditions, avoid congestion, call for assistance, follow detours, signal the presence of recharging stations, parking, availability of vehicles in share mode.
The Internet of Things (IoT) associated with the use of drones and digital 3D models can supervise and monitor highways to guarantee an increase in safety and functionality. It will also be possible to create digital archives with photographs, surveys, initial and maintenance plans of each of these to help companies with maintenance and keep a log of operations.
Read more: The Internet of Things: smart living
Read more: Smart tyres at 5G by Pirelli: How they work