The new motorways will come equipped with sensors that transmit real-time information on weather and traffic. Credit: Nick Fewings

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Highways of the future



Tycoon Elon Musk astonished the world a few weeks ago by announcing his intention to create a system of underground tunnels for cars to travel at 240 kilometres per hour, twice the maximum allowed on our highways. But you don’t have to go several metres underground to find initiatives that could revolutionise the world of transport. Companies from all over the world are investing in projects that will shape our highways of the future.

Farewell to fossil fuels

Road transport produces 20% of all carbon emissions worldwide, according to the European Commission. Reducing the pollution caused by fossil fuels is one of the main challenges facing the sector. Manufacturers are participating in a race to develop electric cars with greater autonomy, and public officials in charge of infrastructure are also seeking solutions. It’s possible that in the future a driver will be able to recharge his car while driving on a stretch of road capable of transmitting electricity to the vehicle.

The TEV Project is looking to do just that by building special highways in which autonomous cars are recharged when they drive along them at speeds of up to 200 kilometers per hour. Renault and the technology companies Qualcomm Technologies and Vedecom are developing a similar technology with the Fabric project. In a test carried out on the 100-metre test track at Satory, near Paris, two Renault Kangoo Z.E. electric cars drove at 100 km/h and had a 20 kW recharge. There are also firms that are developing green solutions for trucks. Alstom and Volvo are working on the Electric Road Systems project, promoted by the Swedish Energy Agency. In the purest style of the classic scalextric (slot cars), they have a test track in Sweden equipped with a system with conductive power segments built into the asphalt that are connected to the truck and provide power as it moves.

The technology of this pavement allows recharging the batteries of an electric vehicle while driving. Credit: Qualcomm.

Solar highways

Smart highways can also be converted into generators of electricity from solar energy. This is the goal of the Colas Group, which specialises in the construction of transport infrastructure, and the INES (French National Institute of Solar Energy) with their collaborative Wattway project. It consists of installing photovoltaic panels in the current pavement, which according to the company "is occupied by vehicles 10% of the time." "Imagine the solar resources of this surface, facing the sky." France inaugurated the world’s first section of solar road in 2016 on a local road in Normandy with a length of one kilometre. A segment like this can provide electricity to power street lighting in a city of 5,000 inhabitants, according to the French Agency for Environment and Energy Management (ADEME). This energy can also be used to power traffic signals or for charging stations for electric cars.

Sensors to monitor roads

In this optimisation of the roads of the future, there are initiatives that propose installing sensors on highways to facilitate the journeys, such the ones that transmit real-time information on weather and traffic. These types of devices also allow tolls to be collected automatically so that vehicles don’t have to stop to pay. The price of the tolls varies depending on the amount traffic in each lane. The fare goes up the more cars there are in order to ensure the smooth flowing of traffic.

It may be the case that all the highways of the future will also have stations that check our tires. The sensors and cameras developed by WheelRight already analyse the pressure and the state of the wheels of the vehicles without the driver having to get out of the car. The sensors can also serve to provide data on incidents such as asphalt degradation, vibration during construction work, road temperature or the need to adjust the lighting. A nine-kilometre stretch on a highway in Norway has been equipped with smart streetlights. They operate at 20% of their maximum capacity when no vehicles are present, and they light up more intensely when a car is detected driving in the area. In just one week, 2,100 kilowatts per hour were saved.

A smart streetlights control system that turns on only when cars are in circulation saves energy. Credit: Comlight.

Vigilant vehicles and drones

What’s more, the vehicles of the future will be able to go one step further and detect potholes in highways and then transmit information on their location, as well as the seriousness of the problem, to the companies in charge of repairing them, according to the company Highways England, financed by the British government, in the report The Strategic Road Network Initial Report. Intelligent cars, for example, will also be able to alert other nearby vehicles so they can avoid dangerous stretches of road. Drones can also be useful for analysing the state of infrastructure. According to the same firm, these devices can also provide an initial assessment of traffic incidents or other information.

The coming transportation revolution, therefore, starts from the infrastructure itself and then passes to the vehicles that utilise it. The challenge is also to determine how they relate to each other for the optimal utilisation of resources, thereby reducing the impact on the environment and ensuring safety.

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Tungsteno is a journalism laboratory to scan the essence of innovation. Devised by Materia Publicaciones Científicas for Sacyr’s blog.

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