There are over 245,000 miles of roads in Britain, carrying 35 million cars. So isn’t it time they smartened up? Here’s how science will change our trusty old tarmac
Car will self-generate power from solar rays
Think about it: our roads have a large surface area directly exposed to the sky. This could give those snap-in panels the ability to catch solar rays and not only have power to feed the cars they serve, but also give back to the grid. We could also harness the sun’s energy to heat water stored beneath the road, creating hydroelectricity. This idea is being pioneered by another Dutch company, SolaRoad.
Roads will able to repair themselves
Additives that are able to reseal the road’s surface are being researched on. The idea is to put powdered bacteria in ‘Bio-concrete’, which allows natural closing of holes and cracks. Another solution is embedding concrete with steel fibres, which can be heated up to restore suppleness. This would avoid the age-old problem of expansion and contraction that cracks the road surface and leads to all sorts of pesky potholes.
Smart roads could mean the end of streetlights
UK company Pro-Teq has developed a product called Starpath, a spray-on substance that captures the sun’s light during the day then emits it at night. It could be applied to the road surface, making it glow-in-the-dark in a variety of colours (red to warn of accident black spots, amber before sharp turns, and so on). But it could also be sprayed onto roadside trees and buildings, so they, too, become phosphorescent and, therefore, provide illumination. Losing streetlights also has benefits beyond easing carbon footprints – because the coating is non-reflective and comparatively low intensity, it could massively ease light pollution.
Roads will even warn drivers of bad weather
French company, Eurovia is researching temperature sensitive paint that changes colour when temperatures drop below zero, so you could actually see the cold spots and slow down to avoid skidding on ice.
Roads could act as a flood defence
More advanced drainage systems won’t just stop puddles from accumulating, they’ll actually make roads a part of our national flood defence system.
Roads will give your car directions
We can already predict with some certainty that one day cars will communicate with each other, but roads will become part of the dialogue, too. This means your traditional satellite navigation system will no longer be a lone box struck to the screen, it will be in-car tech fed by this rich seam of information. “Satnav (satellite navigation) is only part of the entire information system the driver sees in front of them, as all the communication systems we have will come together as we drive.
Distracting signs will be a thing of the past
Notice how all of these little features feed into one another? If directions are fed directly to in-car screens, and roads are actively warning us of difficult conditions ahead, then some of our road signs are starting to look a little bit redundant. De-cluttering busy roadsides would help to keep our eyes on the signs that matter the most, and in turn provide more space for the solar panels and irrigation systems that will make our roads weather-resistant power sources.
Electric lorries and buses could be a reality
If you power by road, it opens up electrification to trucks and buses as well. The technical requirements and development costs are, naturally, rather big. But if vehicles – particularly freight – could travel via train-like in platoons, we could control their speed, and therefore the provision of power, because energy use would become more predictable. Just imagine how clear our motorways would be if all the lorries travelled together in one lane.
Roads will charge your car
Perhaps the Holy Grail for a future electric infrastructure, and the thing that would cure the range anxiety that clouds the idea of buying an electric car for so many people, is the prospect of a road that powers your car. It would contain coils connected to an electric current; while there would be coils in the bottom of the car which would resonate as it travelled. The resulting magnetic fields would continuously transfer electricity to charge the car’s batteries. The UK government is looking long and hard at making this actually happen.