Smarter roads for the future

Twenty million miles of road snake across the surface of the earth. That’s enough pavement to wrap around the equator 833 times—or enough road to get you more than halfway to Mars. Most of those roads are made from asphalt concrete, a composite of bitumen and mineral aggregate. Environmentalists hate it, and state, county and city public works departments struggle with its lack of durability and constant need for costly maintenance.

Can roads be better, more economical to build and repair, and more ecologically sound? Good question. To which the answer appears to be, “Yes.” Here’s a list of possibilities for the road of the future, compiled from a wide variety of sources by a the British company known as CarLoans 4 U. (I don’t know who they are, either, or what motivated them to put this together, but I’m intrigued by the list, so here it is, with hyperlinks I’ve added for your convenience.)

New surface materials

Currently, asphalt-based roads are being replaced by environmentally friends, organic resin-based materials such as Eco-Pave.  Many road surface manufacturers are investigating the possibility of using recycled plastics in road construction.

Dynamic paint

Specially formulated paints used for symbols on the road surface could indicate whether the temperature is hot enough or cold enough to affect driving conditions. This innovation is being tested in the Netherlands.

Glow in the dark road markings

Netherlands crews are also testing road markings painted with glow-in-the-dark paint, so that they can been seen without the need for lights.

Anti-icing roads

Under study in Wisconsin are road surfaces containing naturally reactive de-icer [such as a product known as Safe Lane) that prevent ice from forming on roads.

Interactive wind-powered lights

These lights, powered by the wind, would turn on only when a car is present.

Wireless electric vehicle charging

Using “inductive power transfer” (the same method by which electric toothbrushes are charged), electric cars could be charged wirelessly as they travel along the road, removing the need to stop and refuel.

Solar energy roads

Cars would drive on specially toughened and durable solar panels, which would help provide and alternative means of power generation.

Piezoelectric energy roads

Piezoelectric crystals can generate energy from the vibrations that vehicles generate as they drive along the road.

Intelligent highways

Roadside listening stations would link up with GPS receivers in cars to monitor traffic patterns and accidents. Information would then be passed back to navigation systems in cars to help drivers avoid congested areas and accidents.

So, while drivers don’t appear to be getting more intelligent, cars are, and, apparently, so can highways. Fortunately, while these new technologies are just plain fun to imagine, they’re not just sci-fi dreams inspired by “The Jetsons.”  Many of them are currently being tested on a small scale. If proven, they could go a long way toward transforming pavement—which isn’t going away—into a more sustainable substance, while improving the driving experience. How to pay for these developments on a large scale will be a subject for much debate and another post for this blog.