A trip along the motorways of the future
They are called smart roads and are still in the testing phase: they are capable of adapting the traffic flow through information collected by sensors and radars. Some even charge electric cars inductively. It is not science fiction: it is the future of mobility.
Everything began with a light bulb. In 2007, a group of scientists from the MIT surprised those in the industry and outside it when they managed to light it without any kind of cables or plug. It seemed like magic, but it had a very scientific basis: by generating a magnetic field around it, an energy exchange from the generator was established. In this way, a lit bulb (incidentally, the icon used to indicate a good idea) gave rise to induction charging.
Today, more than ten years later, this system has become quite standardised for mobile phones (more and more cars have it factory-equipped) and it is going to shape the future of roads and motorways. It makes sense: even an oil company like Shell publicly predicted that by 2050 all cars will be electric. Now that battery technology is constantly evolving, roads with induction charging capacity would favour traffic flow. This becomes even more relevant if we take into account that manufacturers are working to firmly establish the principle of autonomous driving .
There are various initiatives under way in this regard. Endesa has already proven this technology; for example, in a bus lane in Málaga as part of its Victoria project. Other companies such as Siemens propose other less subtle solutions, but maybe more workable in the short term: motorway lanes with catenaries, designed for trucks which, before long, will have electric motors. “In order to cover a distance of 800 kilometres without charging, a battery weighing less than half the weight of the truck would be required,” the company’s managers have stated publicly, adding that, “a truck would save approximately €20,000 in fuel every 100,000 kilometres, for example, and six million tonnes of CO2 emitted into the atmosphere every year.” But they warn: “A truck that is charged in the lane with the catenary will in no case be able to exceed 90 km/h.”
Smart roads will not be limited to inductive charging. Some apply solutions that are more creative than technological, as in the case of the road designed by the company Studio Roosegarde. Signals are illuminated at night using a special paint. The company claims that this section of the N329 road, which crosses the Dutch municipality of Oss and on which tests are being conducted, could vary the information in accordance with road and traffic conditions in the future. For example, snowflake-shaped icons will be lit up on the asphalt when its temperature falls below a certain limit in order to warn of the possibility of icy patches.
At present, the most advanced smart road is urban (although tests are being conducted to subsequently apply the same principles to motorways). It crosses three streets in the city of Hamburg, and the project includes the participation of Californian telecommunications company Cisco and the Hamburg City Council. Cameras, radars and sensors have been strategically installed along the road that send the information via a Wi-Fi network both to the illuminated signs along the road and to the authorities. Thus, for example, a driver will know beforehand if a car has broken down in the middle of the road.
Meanwhile, Spanish construction company Ferrovialhas inaugurated the LBJ Express ring road in Dallas, one of the most advanced in the world: the tolls are automated and use sensors so that cars do not have to stop and, more important, they vary their price in accordance with the traffic in each lane: the higher the number of cars, the higher the rate. With this system, smooth traffic flow is guaranteed.
But the greatest breakthrough has been made by Amazon: according to the US media, the patent and trademark office in the United States has granted the e-commerce company a licence for a highway that will control self-driving cars and trucks through reversible lanes. In the patent, Amazon proposes a wireless network that can gather road traffic data and connect to self-driving cars so they can adapt to the traffic flow.
Although a date has not yet been set to implement this system in an actual road, it is clear that initiatives such as Amazon’s and those mentioned earlier will facilitate the day-to-day activity of its truck drivers, carriers and also other drivers.