SMART ROADS Are smart roads the next frontier in mobility?
Many researchers are investing in a future where connected roads light our journeys, charge our electric and autonomous vehicles and provide real-time insights through sensor data. However trials have created mixed results with the cost of installation and maintenance, and the efficacy of materials creating a barrier to success.
Innovation in mobility is creating new ways to move people and freight across the globe. Roads are the most extensive infrastructure on earth, and we are witnessing a spate of innovation at the intersection between mobility, infrastructure, and design underpinned by extensive R&D. Not all efforts are successful. Still, numerous companies are looking to a technology-driven future for roads and highways, with a flurry of efforts to create solutions that make roads safer and more sustainable.
The rise of the smart roads
Israeli company Valerann has created an IoT sensor that transforms roads into data-generating infrastructure that makes journeys fasters and safer and paves the way for the introduction of autonomous vehicles. The company was the winner of 2020 Best of Innovation in the CES Innovation Awards.
The Valerann sensory road stud replaces standard RPMs (Raised Pavement Markers) and forms a sensory network that shares information with Valerann's cloud and directly with vehicles. The sensory road stud is equipped with six different sensors, is solar-powered, and uses Valerann's proprietary LoRA-based communication.
Roads are transformed into a comprehensive sensory network at less than 20% of current solutions. Each network can track every vehicle's exact driving pattern on the road: down to the exact in lane location of each vehicle in real-time. This provides real-time information for drivers and provides navigation apps with lane-by-lane traffic. The sensors can also use controllable LEDs to share simple messages with drivers. Lighting can turn blue if there is ice on the road, a single lane can be closed with red lighting if a risk is detected, flashing red lighting at a driver if they are driving in the wrong direction, or use a chasing pattern of orange lights to request that drivers slow down.
Glow in the dark roads
In 2014, a trial was undertaken on the N329 highway in Oss, Netherlands which aimed to create a glow in the dark road charged by the sun. A 500m stretch of highway painted with paint containing photo-luminising powder that "charges up" during the day, with the ability to glow for up to eight hours every night. Unfortunately, after two weeks, it was reported that the stripes failed to provide a consistent level of light, attributed to the system's inability to deal with moisture, anticipated at the project's origin.
The company also partnered with Studio Roosegaarde in 2007, installing a stunning 3,000-foot bike path in the Netherlands, which charged during the day and glowed at night:
What about solar roadways?
Many see a future that includes solar roads, which collect solar energy facilitate a burgeoning of opportunity in enterprise spaces such as energy trading and energy storage. There have been a plethora of funds thrown beyond R&D, and projects are mainly in the testing/demonstration stage, producing mixed results.
In the US, Solar Roadways has created a modular system of specially engineered solar panels that can be walked and driven upon. The panels contain LED lights to create lines and signage without pain. They also include heating elements that can prevent snow and ice accumulation. Each panel is embedded with microprocessors to communicate with each other, a central control station, and vehicles. The panels are made of specifically formulated tempered glass, which can support the weight of semi-trucks, and each has a tractioned surface, which is equivalent to asphalt.
The company received funding from the US Department of Transport to research the viability of creating a highway system that would pay for itself over time through renewable energy generation. In 2014, the company started a crowdfunding drive and raised 2.2 million dollars. It became Indiegogo's most popular campaign ever regarding the number of backers it attracted.
The company has installed several test pilots but has been plagued by failures with materials and even panels catching fire. A 2018 trial shut down in Idaho after LEDs in certain colors started to fade unexpectedly, and snow caused problems for the heating elements because of the metal strips that cover the panels' gap. Their next iteration will have rubber strips to mitigate problems with heat distribution.
Portugal's PAV Energy believes in a future where electric vehicles are powered by energy generated by vehicles' movement on roads. They are currently working on research to develop and implement an electromechanical or piezoelectric system inserted into the pavement to produce energy by the movement of vehicles. This energy will be used to charge batteries for electric cars and be for general consumption via injection into the electricity grid or direct use in electrical equipment, such as traffic lights, public lighting, and digital outdoor advertising.
Most companies are planning to initially deploy on non-critical applications such as driveways and parking lots. In the Netherlands, SolarRoad was created as a prototype by a consortium of researchers. It consisted of solar panels mounted on a concrete slab which are coated with a skid-resistant, translucent sealant. Researchers estimated that 300 km2 could generate enough solar energy to power 9 million electric cars within the Netherland's road network. In more technical terms: with this surface, 20 - 30 TWh of solar power can be generated, or 20-25% of the total current electricity consumption. The technology has been successfully trialed in the Netherlands and France.
The vastness of the road is both an opportunity and a challenge. In particular, when it comes to solar projects, there's plenty of critics questioning the robustness of research, from the viability of flat solar (compared to those traditionally tilted to catch the sun) and the efficacy of road surfaces. It will be a long time (if ever) before solar roads will be able to compete with the energy generated from solar roofs and solar parks.
While Valerann has successfully demonstrated a valuable business case, considerable upfront and maintenance costs have plagued other road innovators, suggesting we are still a long way away from scalable solar-power-generating road technology.