Smart And Sustainable Roads: The Future Solution


Research and test projects related to sustainable roads are gaining ground.

An average passenger car kicks out a staggering 4.6 metric tonnes of carbon dioxide in a year. What makes an even more worrying picture is that the forecasts are for global traffic to exponentially increase. The number of vehicles on the road is likely to increase by a factor of between 17% and 51% by 2050. If a significant shift towards electric vehicles does not happen, this will spell terrible news for the environment and people.

Plug-in vehicles, while being the solution to this problem, still need improvements to make a significant difference. One of their limitations is lack of suitable infrastructure. At the moment, it is still difficult in the majority of areas for EVs to undertake long journeys. Furthermore, our current global road infrastructure contributes to the lack of sustainability in transportation. Lighting and signs alone use incredible amounts of non-renewable energy.

Electric roads: the future of sustainable traffic

Fortunately, multiple different parties are working to develop the concept of viable electric roads. The ethos behind each is to create a sustainable road network which uses differing elements of renewable energy to power both electric vehicles and aspects of the road system (for example signage and lighting).

What’s more, the engineers behind these projects are aiming to develop road systems which would enable the mechanical energy of a car on the move to be turned in to the energy needed – both to power the roads and their infrastructure and electric vehicles.

At the moment, different projects are tackling the same objective in different ways: some possibilities on the table for smart roads are still distant in terms of viability. However, promising realistic technologies are being tested and introduced as well. The infographic below offers an outlook on the engineering and science behind each scheme.


Sustainable roads in action

Research and test projects underway to develop sustainable roads are at a particularly exciting junction.

One of the most exciting is the Swedish project which now has a real electric road on the outskirts of Stockholm. While it doesn’t impress with the length of 2 kilometers, it is a global first. The road allows plug-in cars to recharge as they drive by drawing electricity from the road in to the car’s battery through a moveable arm which is situated on the underside of the vehicle.

The scheme has been seen as such a success that there are plans underway to extend this electric road network elsewhere in the country. It’s great news for Sweden, and beyond, as road traffic is responsible for 33% of all Swedish carbon emissions.

What’s interesting is that not all roads would need to be replaced with this type to bring wide-ranging benefits. By focusing on main routes, shorter journeys can then be undertaken on battery power alone.

It’s not just Sweden. Engineers at Lancaster University have been investigating the use of so called ‘piezolectric’ ceramics. These would be embedded in the surface of the road in order to harvest the energy created by the vehicle and turn it into electricity. This research, as part of the SAFERUP project, could take the energy created by standard traffic flow over one hour, to power between 2 and 4 thousand street lights.

Another plan to develop electric roads by Highways Agency aimed at creating roads that could power electric cars running at 100km/h with 20 kW. It was paused in 2018 because of promising insight coming from the FABRIC project co-funded by the European Commission. This initiative involves testing on 100-metre tracks made of 4 stretches, each of which equipped with its own supply. Thanks to magnetic coupling, these stubs generate and transmit the energy to special vehicle pads attached to the cars.

Advancements in smart technologies

Looking further afield, just outside the Chinese city of Jenin, another style of electric road has been laid.

Whilst the current use of this road (to use the energy of its solar panels to power highway lights and 800 homes) is valuable, it’s the potential this road represents that really has us sitting up straight.

This road can have specialised sensors installed which will, ultimately, be able to transmit both power and data to electric car batteries. The problem isn’t with the technology behind the road – that’s already workable – the problem is that the cars which could be charged in this way aren’t yet being used.

Nonetheless, the Jinan project gives us a glimpse in to real possibilities across the globe. What’s more, the estimated lifespan of these ‘intelligent’ roads is 15 years. This is the same as a traditional asphalt road.

The real roads of the future

What will the roads of the future look like exactly? The layering presented on the infographic is an insight into what is possible, with some smart infrastructure technologies being introduced right now and others still having a long way to go.

Chances are that other innovations will become possible with the developments we have underway today. It may take some time yet, but we’re certainly making inroads.

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10 Comments on "Smart And Sustainable Roads: The Future Solution"

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Sounds darn expensive. *

Beings everybody is flocking to the dense urban anyway,… why not just build out modern light rail plus grade separated bike/walking paths?

*plus, any sort of “smart road” repair is going to take what,… 10 times longer than “traditional”?

Additionally, there is another type of electric vehicle that would work well for what you’re talking about…e-bikes! Particularly in areas that have a lot of hills and steep climbs (thinking of San Francisco). Though, I have to say the, the photo- and/or electro-luminescent paint sounds great for clearly showing bike paths to drivers.

Even the cleanest cars are useless when it comes to solving traffic congestion. A freeway jammed with electric cars is just as frustrating as a freeway jammed with ICE cars. We need convenient mass transit.

“just as frustrating…”
No, they are both frustrating but only one is slowly killing you.

Oh, I don’t know, I’d certainly call the stress induced by traffic a slow killer.

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The overall concept is interesting, but the skid cars (coaches?) look kind of silly (plus, how does a car drive up to the elevated track to enter one of the automobile coaches?). If you’re still going with the double rail approach (I’d prefer mono really), then I’d integrate the maglev contact points into the vehicle itself, giving it a sleeker look.

PS – the hydrogen pipeline concept is an old one, saw it in PopSci many years ago.

I personally think the wave of the future for Tesla’s Boring Company is if they could find out to dig a 30 foot wide tunnel that could carry two 12 foot lanes and two 6 foot shoulders.

That way Tesla could bury large sections of urban expressways underground and allow the land that the old highway sat on to become green space for trees and grass and even allow old cemeteries to reclam and expand on land lost to the freeway which would offset all the smoke from the cars.

I’m even working in a news paper story about how Elon Musk’s Boring Company could be used to bury Syracuse section of Interstate 81.

Syracuse tunneling project currently is at 3.7 billion dollars and take ten years to dig but if Tesla could dig out the tunnel for 800 million and dig out the tunnel in a year or two that would revolutionize the way urban highways are treated.

Not to mention the new highway could be a eight lane on two levels a upper local level and a deep express sub level for interstate traffic using the four tunnels to go under the city.

No one not even governments is going to fund Boring Company Model X in a tube concept. They thought it was going to high speed pods

What about starting simply with, say, initiatives to have more smart traffic lights that are synced just to keep traffic flowing more? Some of the busier roads in my Florida city are not synced so all the gas guzzlers floor it when the light turns green only to have to quickly stop again an eighth of a mile down the road because of a red light. Plus why can’t the lights recognize patterns/traffic density to keep traffic moving? Isn’t it maddening when late at night a light turns red just because it’s on a timer and no car is even there in the cross street? Sure having regenerative braking helps a bit but still the 99% of the vehicles that don’t have regen are better served to just maintain their momentum. Oh… And speaking of momentum, why don’t we have more roundabouts in this country? So what if people might have to … gasp… learn something new? I’d like to think if one is incapable of figuring out a roundabout then maybe that person should be incapable of obtaining a driver’s license. I’m all for a quick transition to EV’s and renewable energy but in the meantime some things could… Read more »