The Roads Ahead – How will the roads of the future look like?
Certain technologies like smartphones and the internet, have evolved at lightning speed and have transformed the business landscape of many sectors. Vehicle technology has also rapidly advanced in the last few decades. But the roads we drive on, have remained unchanged for decades, the roadways have not kept up the pace of development. Globally, billions of dollars are spent on designing energy-efficient, future-ready vehicles. But, we are yet to witness a real revolution in highway and road construction technologies. (I am not counting minor patchwork improvements).
Why the need for change?
Roads – the Underlying Support Infrastructure for Economic Progress
Roads are more than the underlying framework to transport people and goods from Point to point. They are the drivers of economic progress and national victories. In the Second World War, the Autobahn played a crucial role in moving critical military resources for the German troops. A well-planned interstate highway system helped German troops establish their presence on the continent.
After the end of the Second World War, US President Franklin D. Roosevelt launched the construction of a similar interstate highway system in the US. Besides providing jobs for the large number of troops returning home, these highways also played a crucial role in the growth of the US economy.
In India, former Prime Minister, late Shri Atal Bihari Vajpayee realised that investing in roads would pave way for the development and thus created the NHDP (National Highway Development Programme). He passed the Central Road Fund Act in 2000, which empowered the centre to develop national highways at a swift pace.
By empowering the NHAI (National Highways Authority of India) and eliminating the need for project-wise approval for each road, the Prime Minister paved the way for quick development of national highways, spanning the length and breadth of the country.
India had built a total of 34,000 km of national highways since Independence up to 1991. Under the tenure of Mr Vajpayee, this grew to a whopping 58,000 km in 2001. By 2019, the NHAI had added further 81,000 km of national highways with average 29 Km construction per day in last 6 years.
It may be hard to imagine, but in the coming years, the number of cars on roads will increase further. Globally, the volume of vehicles plying the streets has been steadily growing. According to reports by the International Transport Forum, passenger mobility on roads will be 3x to 4x times higher than it is today.
Other reports indicate that the world's vehicle count will grow by 3% every year until 2030. These vehicles will be used majorly in megacities, as 75% of the total global population will live in cities by 2050.
So, how will we cope with this surge in vehicular traffic? How do we work on revolutionising our roads so that they help in national economic progress?
The answer lies in – Technology. Just like our cities, our roads will get smart in the coming years. Let's take a look at some of the predictions regarding the future of highways. Some of these projects are currently in the prototype stage, whereas others are still in the initial stages of planning.
Several companies across the globe are exploring the potentials of harnessing energy from roads. The Glowing Lines project is a 500-meter long road in Netherland. The lanes of the highways are painted with light-absorbing paint. These paints absorb sunlight by day and glow at night, guiding drivers.
In Jinan, a city in China, a company is experimenting by laying solar panels on a major highway. The energy generated from these solar panels will be used to light up the roads at night. A similar trial is being conducted by Colas, a French startup in partnership with the National Solar Energy Institute.
Our future roads have the potential to become massive power generators. Solar panels on the streets will harness the energy from the sun and convert it into electrical energy that can be used for various purposes. Thus, cutting down our reliance on fossil fuels for energy.
Roads that charge Electric Cars
Electron is a start-up based in Israel working on a technology, which will allow electric cars to charge while they are in motion. The company uses special coils that are buried beneath the asphalt of roads. These coils provide on-the-go charging for vehicles using the road. The project director states that these roads eliminate the need for charging infrastructure, reducing the environmental impact of electric cars.
Several companies worldwide are working on creating a network of smart highways that rely on sensors to detect and reroute traffic in real-time. The intelligent sensors for these highways will be embedded in the roads as well as on the vehicles.
These highways have the potential to prevent crashes by detecting the speed, momentum, and position of vehicles. If any of these parameters change abruptly, the system will override the vehicle's manual control system and prevent a collision.
The highways of the future will also be low maintenance. Research is being done on the development of self-repairing materials that will reduce maintenance costs.
Heating Panels on Roads
Imagine embedding heating element panels on road surfaces. This could help in increasing the temperature of roads, melting ice, and snow, thus making travel conditions safer and smoother in winter.
The transport system of the future will be more intelligent, integrated, and efficient.
However, this is changing, as new technologies are being tested on road construction. With these new technologies, the installation, efficiency and maintenance of road infrastructure will be radically different in the coming years.
The author is one of the rising new voice in Digital Technology World today. He authored one of the bestselling book- Digital Construction Management and is known for his passion for technology and successful implementation of many digital programs of Government such as electronic tolling on national highways in India (FASTag), e-Tender & e-MB Portals, automation of highway sector, Project Management Softwares, citizen-centric Mobile Apps etc. His recent contribution is the development of Artificial Intelligence-based Big Data analytic platform – Data Lake at NHAI. An IIT & ISB alumni, strategist and excellent executor, Akhilesh is one of the respected technocrats of India.