Articles, Smart Mobility

Smart Motorways: What’s already on the move and what is down the road?

This text was guet-authored by Giles Kirkland, car expert and all-round motoring enthusiast.

Globally, road systems are having immense problems, most notably in terms of their impact on the environment, due to the traffic they carry. Electric vehicles (EVs) aim to reduce the harmful carbon emissions generated by traditional vehicles. However, road systems themselves combined with EVs could create more sustainable road infrastructure. The good news is, there’s already a great deal of work being done in this area. So, what are the real and tangible solutions which are available now, and what’s coming in the future?

Current smart and sustainable road technology

There are a myriad of trials and projects around the globe working towards creating sustainable motorways. Many of these specifically focus on the use of piezoelectric energy harvesting and solar roads. The aim of both these types of technology is to use the inherent resources available in the road system to solve the problem of roads and sustainability themselves.

With solar roads, the concept is to harness the opportunity of wide open stretches of road through the use of solar panels to gather energy, without ruining the natural landscape. This energy is then used for powering the road infrastructure, for example lights and signs, as well as potentially sending excess to the electric grid, or indeed EVs.

An example of one of the first solar roads would be the one built by WattWay which used a photovoltaic road surface during the motorway’s construction in France in 2016. With the initiative being a success, similar technologies are now being implemented or considered in various locations globally, including the US.

Piezoelectric energy harvesting is a conversion process which uses cars’ mechanical vibrations to generate electricity. Such energy can power road signage or lights as well as charge EVs or, as mentioned, can even be fed into the electric power grid for use elsewhere. Special crystals placed in the form of ceramic tiles can be embedded in the road. Piezoelectric charge will then be created with mechanical stress applied on the surface and as a result, moving vehicles will generate electricity.

Current sustainable motorway projects

A wide range of current sustainable and smart motorway projects are underway globally. In the United States, the company called Solar Roadways are using microprocessors within their solar modules to power LED lights along the road, as well as for melting ice and snow, to further driving safety. Another example of this photovoltaic module technology in use is the Jinan project, in China. Researchers working on the second project are now looking at solving some of the early problems the system has had, such as dirt covering the panels, and considering ideas such as running the panels alongside the road.

Piezoelectricity was first used in roads as far back as 2009. A company called Innowattech embedded piezoelectric devices in three roads in Israel: the Ayalon, Coastal and Trans-Israel Highways. Now, these developments in this technology can also be seen around the globe.

In the US alone, the Oregon Dept of Transport, Berkley and Virgina Technology Institutes are good illustrations of work underway, and in Europe, for example, a trial by Lancaster University in the UK, was designed to test ‘piezoelectric’ ceramics for sustainable roads, as well as a 100m testing track near Paris was built. However, Europe is not the only continent following America’s footsteps. Piezoelectricity is also in use at the Ma-Zhao Highway outside of Zhaotong City in Yunnan Province, China.

Down the road for sustainable motorways

The previously mentioned Jinan project in China is possibly the most interesting one to watch at the moment. This initiative has gone a little further than previous ones. This type of road enables to install specialized sensors which can then transfer power to the batteries of EVs on the move. For us to make our roads more smart and sustainable, we need to see more cross-border projects which combine different technologies currently being tested in a multitude of different locations, which in the end will truly make or break the post-fossil fuel world.

About the author:
Giles Kirkland is an environmentally conscious car expert with passion for combining the newest technologies with a healthy lifestyle. He gives sustainable living and driving tips and shares his ideas on everything from electric vehicles to the alternative energy sources. Giles’ articles are available at Oponeo and on Twitter.