Smart Highways : Smarter than Smart Cars?

Car makers are competing to build the ultimate self-driving car that makes it OK to fall asleep at the wheel. But one Dutch designer thinks it makes more sense to build a smart highway instead. By J.Torr. 

Daan Roosegaarde has big ideas for the road we takeCopenhagen, 12th September 2013. As one of the winners of this year’s INDEX awards, which comes with a €100,000 prize, designer Daan Roosegaarde and partner Hijmans Infrastructure have come up with a road design that can “communicate with its drivers in order to promote both traffic safety and efficiency.” Sound neat? Look at the illustrations to see how it works. 

Roosegaarde’s Smart Highway is an innovative concept that links different ways of looking at transport as an individual practice, utilising innovative ideas that apply new technologies in smart ways. It is described as a tactile, high-tech environment in which the viewer and space become one. The concept is the result of intensive collaboration between Dutch builder and developer Heijmans, and Roosegaarde. Together they are moving towards making the road itself sustainable and smart at the same time. It will also be interactive, reacting to conditions, traffic, and the environment with equal dexterity. It uses available techniques such as smart lighting, harvesting energy, and traffic signs that adapt to road conditions – but applies them in a concerted way that allows much more effective use of what are currently bland and invasive stretches of dangerous tarmac.

Different folks, Same goals

Although the differences between Heijmans and Roosegaarde are major, they share their most important goal: innovating the Dutch landscape. “We live in cities of endless gray concrete roads, surrounded by steel lamps and they have a huge visual impact on our cities. But why do the roads remain so rough and without imagination? Why not turn them into a vision of mobility – a symbol of the future?” asks Roosegaarde.

His smart highway concept is innovative, but makes sense. He wants to embed highways with technology that can “visually communicate when the road is slippery,” actually charge an electric vehicle as it drives past, and uses its own electricity to create spot lighting as needed.

“The goal is to make roads more sustainable and interactive by using light, energy and road signs that automatically adapt to the traffic situation,” he says. Just some of the design concepts he sees as being used include a ‘Glow-in-the-Dark Road’, ‘Dynamic Paint’, ‘Interactive Light’, ‘Induction Priority Lane’ and ‘Wind Light’.”

Charging cars as they drive in the Charge-Up lane makes a lot of sense for relatively limited-range electric vehiclesUsing Dynamic Paint, roads would be covered in a temperature responsive paint so if the temperature dropped below freezing or it started raining, the paint would turn on, covering the road in snowflakes or slippery road warnings. No need for intrusive signs littering the roadsides.

And at night, the road could actually light itself - which Roosegaarde thinks would be more efficient. “Glow-in-the-dark paint treated with photo-luminising powder could dramatically reduce the need for auxiliary lighting,” he asserts. The concept is that the glow-in-the-dark road charges up in daylight, then illuminates the contours of the road at night for up to 10 hours.”

A special lane dedicated to electric vehicles would both reward eco-drivers, and offer the chance to offer a range of recharging systems, either by induction or even conduction as in railway locomotives. And smart overhead lighting would detect if a vehicle was approaching and switch on, then off again when there was no traffic – saving huge amounts of power.

The unusually-named Wind Lights would harness some of the energy wasted by the draft of cars and trucks. Tiny wind generators would be sited at the side of the highway, and as cars pass the wind of their passing would generate power – and hence light. 

Indexed for Success

The INDEX prize jury said it was “impressed with the Smart Highway (concept) because it is offering the world an entirely new approach to roads.” Indeed, Roosegarde says he wants to see roads that are not only beautiful and alluring but also sustainable and cost-effective. “This offers a unique design solution to developed and developing countries alike. And by doing so, Smart Highway is a true example of the ambition of INDEX: 'Design to improve life',” he says.

With the €100,000 prize, Roosegaarde wants to further develop and even patent similar technologies. He sees other wild applications, like “taking the bioluminescence of jellyfish or fireflies and applying this to nature, thus making roadside plants and trees glow at night as an alternative to public lighting – resulting in a 100 percent new natural lighting.”