The cars we drive change on a yearly basis, but the roads we drive them on have stayed largely the same since the late 19th century, when a new-fangled material called asphalt replaced macadam as the construction material of choice. Luxury car makers seem to debut a new concept car every month—roads are less glamorous, and don’t get "reinvented" very often. Dutch designer Daan Roosegaarde is hoping to change that with Smart Highway, a plan to modernize European highways.
"We live in a city of endless gray concrete roads, surrounded by steel lamps. They have a huge visual impact on our city," says Roosegaarde. "But why do they remain so rough and without imagination? Why not make them a vision about mobility, a symbol of the future?"
Roosegarde and Dutch civil engineers Heijmans Infrastructure believe that by ignoring the roads and focusing on the cars, we’re missing the forest for the trees. The group’s plan proposes embedding highways with technology that can visually communicate when the road is slippery, charge your car as you drive, and generate electricity for its own lights. While it remains conceptual, the plan gained considerable momentum this week after it received a Dutch Design Award.
The Smart Highway isn’t a completely new road, but rather, a kit of parts that can be applied to existing roads as needed. For example, something the designers call "Dynamic Paint" communicates with drivers about weather and traffic changes. When the temperature drops under freezing and the roads become slick, the paint would activate, covering the road with a dusting of bright cartoon snowflakes. Similarly, a glow-in-the-dark paint treated with photo-luminizing powder could reduce the need for auxiliary lighting. "Charged in day light, the glow-in-the-dark road illuminates the contours of the road at night for up to 10 hours," says Roosegaarde.
More technically ambitious is the team’s plan for an Induction Priority Lane, designed to charge the batteries of electric cars as they pass overhead via a series of induction coils embedded under the asphalt. Wind Lights attempt to capitalize on the rush of wind generated by a passing car—hundreds of tiny pinwheel-esque wind turbines would light up as you drive by.
How realistic is their plan? The dynamic paint concept would be fairly simple to implement, though the cute snowflakes will probably be value-engineered out—a simple color-coded warning system would work just as well. Inductive charging, though, is a more complex proposition. I’m no expert on the technology, but from what I understand, it’s already being tested by researches in South Korea.
But as some experts have pointed out, induction charging technology requires plenty of metals and materials like lithium, which is already in high demand. To supply enough just for Holland, the densest highway network in the EU, manufacturers would have to scale up their production exponentially, and it would be expensive. Still, it’s a promising idea—and critics probably did similar naysaying about asphalt back in 1870. Asked about how much smart highways will cost, Roosegarde jokes, "it would be more expensive than a current road, but less expensive than building a new planet Earth."