Are smart roads the future?

smart roads

In recent years, there has been an increase in process innovation within the logistics industry, primarily enabled by the digitalisation trend. However, the underlying infrastructure, such as roads and vehicles, has largely remained the same. An infrastructure innovation which has fallen behind in this regard is smart roads. Smart roads introduce numerous possibilities for road transport which could benefit general drivers, public transport and logistics services.

Decreasing congestion and increasing safety

Smart roads are a concept that involve sensors that monitor and report changing road conditions. These make it possible to analyse vehicle movements, detect possible hazards, detect accidents and even measure weather conditions. Smart road sensors can communicate the information collected with surrounding systems, including directly to vehicles, emergency services, and traffic light networks.

Some smart road technologies also propose LED systems under a transparent surface, essentially turning the whole road into a display screen. This allows road markings and signs to be clearly displayed on the driving surface and easily adjusted to indicate new roadworks, lane reductions, oncoming hazards, changes in speed limit, etc.

Fluid road sign displays, and intelligent traffic management networks could use the information provided by smart road sensors to efficiently adjust vehicle flows in real-time, leading to reduced traffic. Furthermore, the faster detection of hazards and the clearer and direct communication of those hazards to drivers would lead to less accidents. A further feature being used in colder climates are heating devices designed to melt snow. Clearly the concept has numerous advantages.

Benefits for autonomous vehicles

Another benefit which smart roads would bring is changing the operating environment to facilitate the use of autonomous vehicles.

Autonomous vehicles carry a lot of promise because they provide a possible increase in efficiency, by reducing human-caused errors and fuel consumption for example. However, more importantly, they could significantly reduce costs by reducing the number of drivers needed in logistics. In many countries in Europe, it is estimated that around 40% of total cost for road freight operators are categorised as driver costs.

One of the current barriers to the technology is how to develop a situational awareness for self-driving vehicles which guarantees or at least improves safety. With smart roads, autonomous vehicles would benefit from additional information about other vehicles on the road, connection to local traffic information, and faster hazard detection – including better detection of unexpected pedestrians crossing the road.

The real-time access of the information which could be provided by smart roads, as well as the inter-connectivity of systems, would significantly increase the feasibility of self-driving vehicles.

Green energy and reducing CO2 emissions

Smart roads are also employing technologies aimed at generating green energy and reducing energy waste. Some roads employ photovoltaic cells, converting the road into a large solar panel. Other test cases are using the roads to charge electric vehicles whilst in motion.

In 2019, Sweden announced it would trial wireless charging technology on a public road. According to the New York Times, the project will come at a cost of $12m, mostly financed by the Swedish government. The test will be an initial step in Sweden’s plans to eventually build more than a thousand miles of electrified high-speed highways at a cost of $3bn. France, the UK and South Korea are other countries testing similar technology.

Barriers to smart roads

Infrastructure changes, such as developing, trialling and implementing smart roads, take considerable resources and investment. Due to the link to city infrastructure and legislation, infrastructure innovations are usually backed by government funding but can lack private investment.

Another aspect which causes slow progress and reduces implementation is the disjointed approach seen in the market. Most companies focus on developing solutions which would bring just one or a couple of the smart road benefits explored above. For example, some companies might only focus on wireless charging for electric cars, others on the roads as solar panels concepts, and others on introducing sensors to guide autonomous vehicles. Since most solutions are not designed to be implemented in tandem, this decreases the cost-effectiveness of undergoing such an infrastructure transformation.

A lack of confidence is also a barrier. The ‘futuristic’ concept coupled with some early project failures have left people doubting whether changing to smart roads is necessary, beneficial or even possible. At the end of 2016, France unveiled a road made of photovoltaic panels, with the expectation of generating electricity to power streetlights in a local town. The road produced half of the expected energy, cracks started to appear, and in 2018 parts of the road had to be demolished due to the damage from wear and tear. This example is being used to debate against the usefulness of smart road projects.

Are smart roads the future?

Yes, if society is genuinely convinced of the benefits of autonomous vehicle and is determined to cut road freight emissions. Smart roads appear to be the best way of achieving this. A public system, rather than a multitude of private networks, appears to be a more cost effective way of utilising the technology. It is undeniable that the concept of smart roads is aiming in the right direction and has the possibility to bring vast improvements in the logistics industry. However, progress is occurring slowly. The question should be – how long will we have to wait for smart roads?

The aim of improving the performance of electric and autonomous vehicles might lead the first real wave of innovations and implementation. The development and standardization of the technology will be key for increasing adoption.

Source: Transport Intelligence, December 10, 2019

Author: Sergio Korchoff