This has been on my blog to-do list for a while now, and have been prompted again to post it having seen the same subject on the BBC site yesterday.
With the technology of cars advancing impressively to include all manner of smart sensors, “green” electric motors, parking assistance, and even driverless cars, none of this really matters if we don’t have suitable roads to drive on.
Roads. Just a bit of tarmac laid down (relatively) smoothly with some painted lines, right? Well, yes, but why can’t we incorporate some technology into them. Improving them to adapt to traffic and weather, making them more sustainable, making them safer.
I was completely amazed that we somehow spend billions on the design and R&D of cars but somehow the roads – which actually determine the way our landscape looks like – are completely immune to that process. They are still stuck in the Middle Ages, so to speak.
The first, and perhaps most obvious, upgrade to our roads is to use a phosphorescent paint for the road markings. Inspired by deep sea jelly fish it fuels the idea of a energy-neutral street, as the paint “charges up” during daylight hours and then glows throughout the night. This is ideal in rural areas where existing street lighting is minimal, and perhaps one day even removes the need for any altogether.
Following on from that idea, in the colder months temperatures can drop quickly leaving drivers unaware about looming icy and inclement conditions. The use of a dynamic temperature-sensitive paint would provide a simple alert system to drivers by ghosting up snowflakes on the road to act as a warning system when the tarmac becomes cold enough for ice to form.
In order to keep running and maintenance costs down, most of the ideas here focus on free and renewable energy resources. Linked neatly to that is wind power. At either end of tunnels large amounts of wind and air flow can circulate which is essentially wasted energy at the moment. The plan is to use harness this air and, when combined with other air flows from the central reservation of cars passing in opposite directions, use it to power small turbines and further light sources for edge lighting. Similar sorts of applications are already in use on the railways (certainly in the UK anyhow).
With an increasing presence of electric vehicles on the roads, the idea of an Induction Priority Lane doesn’t sound far away. The concept is to build-in coils capable of recharging electric cars as they pass overhead, extending the battery life and range of which a current electric motor and battery setup can provide.
Yes lots of these ideas are costly and perhaps difficult, or near-impossible, to implemented at the moment. But so is any new idea, particularly one as revolutionary as this. Roads haven’t been gradually iterated over past decades, they have essentially remained the same over a very long period of time so to break into that infrastructure is always going to be tricky.
As a designer I fully commend and support the approach and ideas here, and as general members of society everyone (designer or not) should too. I think the key thing to remember here is that the suggestion isn’t for every road in the world to have these. Starting out with just major routes and motorways, and gradually trickling the technology down to commuter routes and, who knows, by that point maybe even bicycles will have been given some more consideration in this!