by Katherine A. Began
When it comes to transport innovation, we often focus on tech and automation inside a vehicle, rarely giving much thought to something equally as noteworthy: engineering possibilities for what’s beneath the vehicle. Like car and home automation, roads are now being considered a candidate for smart technologies. Interstates, back roads, and city streets can provide passage for Internet of Things (IoT) networks, communication systems, data grids, electronic enclosures and a range of other 21st century technologies on the pavement. Let’s take a look at both the opportunities and the challenges associated with smart roads and what we can expect in the near future.
Before now, roads were merely functional in nature. Engineers designed highways to be safe, durable and accessible. The idea that a highway would become a vector for IoT networks or any other communication system was inconceivable and beyond practicality. But recent developments, such as the placement of sensors along roadsides, have created a gateway that makes it possible for roads to act as data conveyors.
Sensors are now reporting data such as road conditions and traffic patterns. Wireless networks can springboard off sensor technology to provide more in-depth communications at higher levels. State and local departments of transportation could use IoT systems to pinpoint road maintenance needs, traffic usage, weather conditions and accident statistics.
IoT Smart Road Applications
In addition to standard road applications, smart roads can also host a variety of features for drivers, businesses and transportation departments. Some of the most promising features include:
- Solar Energy: By harnessing the power of the sun, IoT technology could charge many devices located inside a vehicle. Smartphones and GPS devices could power-up by utilizing solar energy stored in smart roads.
- Charging Stations: The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) estimates that by 2020, there will be 10 million electric vehicles on the highway. Smart roads could provide more charging stations to accommodate electric transports.
- Heated Roads: Until now, road crews have used salt and scrapers to remove ice from highways. Future roads, however, could contain automation that heats roads and prevents ice buildup.
Linking Old Roads with New Roads
Smart road IoT development faces the same integration challenges as any new generation of technology. To add the network, contractors would have to retrofit the current infrastructure while integrating the material into new or renovated roads. One way they will approach this is by rethinking how roads are manufactured. For instance, engineers are now looking at the possibility of creating roads made from a specialized hard plastic that demonstrates incredible durability. This type of progressive material could lay the groundwork for the kind of cable and wiring needed for IoT networks.
Another possible solution is to connect sensors that transportation departments are already using. Although the sensors provide information about weather patterns, road conditions, and traffic, there has yet to be a way to connect them. Thus, all the data collected is fragmented. New roads could supply the framework for bridging the sensors to give analysts a more definite picture of the entire highway landscape. Since interstate maintenance and upgrades are an ongoing endeavor, they provide the ideal platform for testing new network models, as well as road materials.
Self-Driving Cars Meet Smart Roads: The Perfect Match
It should come as no surprise that discussions are already on the table about how smart roads will enhance self-driving cars. The wave of automated vehicle systems would make communications between transport tech and pavement components the next logical step. Leading automobile manufacturers have already added many of their newer models with advanced safety systems such as lane-departure warning (LDW), lane-keeping assist (LKA) and lane-centering assist (LCA). Each of these systems contains onboard sensors that watch the road for the driver. If the driver falls asleep or commits an error and swerves off the road, the safety-assist systems will veer the car back onto the road.
Many of these systems, however, rely on reflectors or rumble strips that cue the vehicle to reposition the wheels. While it is true that safety systems work quite well, they still lack inconsistent performance. Smart roads could fine-tune these systems and improve their accuracy by communicating with the safety devices in real time. The IoT network can provide essential data to the car’s safety system such as impending weather, oncoming traffic conditions, road conditions and other information that would warn the car to adjust its driving or alert it to possible hazards a few miles away.
Current Smart Road Projects Underway
Although the idea of smart roads seems like something that would take decades to realize, there are currently some projects already underway, proving that IoT technology is closer than we realize. Here are some of the most notable smart roads in the world:
Charge the Bus, South Korea: In South Korea, the electric bus is no longer a novelty but, rather, a fixture in public transportation. To solve the problem of outrageous fuel prices and heavy pollution, the country added wireless chargers along the road that ‘re-fuel’ the bus’s battery cell.
The Fiber Optic Highway, Virginia. Though it’s only two miles in length, Virginia Tech has developed a smart road that contains over 400 embedded sensors. The sensors collect data on a wide range of road conditions and ongoing traffic.
The Narada Nodes, California. The New Carquinez Bridge in Vallejo is one of California’s busiest. Contractors equipped the bridge with 33 wireless sensors, aptly named nodes. City officials can calculate acceleration speeds, wind speeds and strain on the bridge at given points. The nodes operate using solar power.
Honking Roads, India. In Jammu, India, the roads talk to the driver. That is, they honk. To improve safety on one of the world’s most dangerous roads, the NH-1, radar sensors have been placed on poles to determine the speed and distance of oncoming vehicles. If the radars sense that a driver is going too fast or swerving, the radars will honk at the driver.
A Promising Future for Digital Highways
Although these systems have demonstrated that smart roads are a viable asset to motorists, it will be quite some time before they are more widely used. As of now, the ideas are way ahead of the innovations, as engineers are trying to determine how to implement smart road technology in a way that is cost-effective, durable and practical. The purpose of smart roads will be to enhance driver experience while making highways safer. That will fuel the technology and give developers the incentive for turning their ideas into reality sooner than we think.
About the Author
Kate Began serves as the Sales and Marketing Manager for Polycase. She oversees the customer service representatives, assists with product development and leads the marketing efforts from the Avon, Ohio headquarters.