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Smart roads: Bedrock of future transport

Category: Smart cities
Published: 19/08/2016

“When we look at highways, why is so much time, money and energy spent on cars but the actual roads themselves are still stuck in the middle ages?” remarked Dan Roosegaarde of Studio Roosegaarde in 2013.

It was perceptive observation, highlighting an obvious oversight in this integral feature of movement. Why, he asked, are we unable to develop road markings that charge during the day and light up at night? Why are roads not smarter, more intuitive?

Today, the attachment of ‘smart’ to any noun has become synonymous with thinking, connected and mobile technologies, as well as the Internet of Things. Smart phones, smart watches, smart cars, smart cities … it’s an ever- increasing list of ingenuity.

So what about smart roads? Roads that think, feel and predict the needs of the people and the vehicles that travel on them? Roads that have an environmental conscience, charge our vehicles and help improve our safety? Roads that actually make a difference to the world?

You’ll be pleased to know they’re very in the pipeline.

What’s in a road?

Presently, roads are a fairly simple science. They help us get to and from places in the safest, most efficient manner. They connect us to other people, cities and towns, and faraway regions. And they let us experience more of the world.

That has been the widely accepted understanding. After all, what else can you do with roads?

Roads are the literal bedrock of future transport

Well, as will be seen, a lot actually – such is the disruptive power that characterises new technologies. As a 2016 report by McKinsey & Company highlighted, “digitization, increasing automation, and new business models have revolutionised other industries, and automotive will be no exception”. Roads are the literal bedrock of future transport.

Key features of smart roads

Typically, there is very little technology that goes into roads. They tend to be made out of asphalt or concrete, which is compacted into a smooth, solid surface and painted upon to indicate certain restrictions, routes and information. And that’s pretty much it.

This is changing. We’re responding to the demands of disruption and looking at roads anew. As the Smart Transportation Alliance observed in a paper last year, you can’t have “a smart city without a smart road … together [they] can provide citizens with smart mobility”.

For now, the focus in on reimagining and adapting existing roads and their immediate environment to ensure that the promise of smart mobility is delivered upon. The good thing is that the technology is already here. What is used to make watches, cars and cities smarter can equally be used to make roads more intelligent.

So, your typical smart road will be more ‘animated’ than its conventional ‘inanimate’ predecessor. It’ll come with sensors, data capture capabilities, the ability to be responsive to changes in the environment and, perhaps most importantly, be connected. Roads will ‘talk’ to cars, bicycles, traffic lights and even cities. Roads will be ‘alive’.

And, in turn, we will benefit from the experience of quicker, safer and more effective trips; the time we get back that is lost to traffic; and the positive environmental impact that is likely to follow.

Examples of innovation

One of the first countries to implement roads that charge electric vehicles was South Korea. In 2013, the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST) installed the first electronically charged bus route in the city of Gumi that was able to charge the electric buses that drove on it.

The aim of the project was to allow buses in the city to travel greater distances without the need to stop to recharge, allowing for more frequent bus services and more convenience for commuters using them.

In the UK, trials started in 2015 for similar technology after a feasibility study commissioned by Highways England highlighted the need for more charging points for electric vehicles. Not only will this improve journeys, it’ll also “create a more sustainable road network”.

At the more innovative end of the spectrum is the work of Studio Roosegaarde, which is utilising the power of the sun to help cyclists and motorists navigate at night with colourful, affecting lighting, as well as temperature-controlled paint that lights up to warn drivers of dangers such as ice on the roads.

The future of our city networks

The potential of connected, smart roads is huge. Not only will they keep us safe by regulating the speed of our vehicles and implementing warning systems, but also transmit real time data and share information across the network, making it simpler and quicker to get around, to find parking, to commute effectively and communicate with each other.

There is much to be optimistic about, but with intelligent roads, there is still a long way to go

There is much to be optimistic about, but with intelligent roads, there is still a long way to go. The groundbreaking technologies conceptualised and tested by the likes of Studio Roosegaarde are still in their infancy and yet to be incorporated into wider town planning.

For now, smart roads are something to look forward to. And, after reading this, we’re sure you’ll never be able to look at a road again in the same way.