Friday, February 11, 2011

The Road Ahead: Two Visions for the Highways of Tomorrow

Cars have come a long way in the past forty years. We’ve seen the introduction of hybrids and hydrogen cars, Head Up Displays (HUDs), adaptive cruise control and in-car navigation. The modern automobile is widely considered to be better built, more fuel efficient and offering a better driving experience than the cars that preceded it just four decades before.

Compare this to the road. In 1861 the first speed limits were introduced in the UK. In 1917, the first highway centerline was painted on the M-15, a road that would one day become part of U.S. Highway 41. Cats eyes appeared in 1935 and the speed camera came in 1971. Since then, not much has changed. Speed limits may have varied and traffic laws may have evolved over the years, but the road itself essentially remains the same.

Scott Brusaw, a 53yo electrical engineer from Idaho, wants to change all that. His Solar Roadways concept is not just unique, it’s damn near Jetson-esque. Imagine driving on a highway made not of asphalt or concrete but of super strong, super durable glass. Beneath the glass would be solar cells that provide power to the embedded heating elements and LED road markings that keep the road clear of snow and visible to drivers in even the harshest of driving conditions.

The roads could even provide enough surplus energy to power homes and businesses on either side. How’s that for environmentally friendly commuting? An alternative to the Solar Roadways is Rajib Mallick’s clever pavement. The Worcester Polytechnic Institute civil engineer is working with his colleagues and a grant from the National Science Foundation and the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative to create pavement that contains thermal-insulating pipes that are constantly heated through summer. Like a giant underground thermos, these pipes retain the heat throughout winter, melting the surface ice (and presumably warming your feet).

To retrofit an existing pavement could cost as little as US$12,500 per fifty metres, with US$1,000 per fifty metres in maintenance costs and provide power to 55 homes. The whole thing could pay for itself in just five years in reductions in energy production and savings, Mallick estimates.

Compare this to Brusaw’s Solar Roadways that could cost as much as US$4.4 million a mile. A big ask, but then they would be more durable than asphalt roads and require less maintenance. And even during peak hour traffic, the solar cells would still being operating at fifty percent. Brusaw is looking for ways to make his Solar Roadways provide as much traction as its less sophisticated equivalents, and to find the optimum temperature for melting snow and ice without simultaneously melting your car tires.

Smarter roads are well within our technological grasp; it’s only a matter of time before our law makers decide to take them from fantasy to reality.

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