Driving on the roads of the future

Monday, 29 january 2018 | Redacción CEU

A lot has been written about the cars that will move on our roads tomorrow. We know that  within some decades cars will be able to drive without our help, take care of the environment better than their predecessors and offer as many services as our cellphones now do. We know that if they are not electric vehicles, at least, their fuels will be more eco-friendly, that drivers will change their habits and new formulas will emerge such as shared mobility, that big cities do not bet on diesel cars and that, in short, the automotive world will change forever. But in order to understand the holistic change that the sector is about to experience, we need to know more about what will be the future of the infrastructures surrounding it, because if they will not change, could the rest do it?

 

With the arrival of connectivity and the Internet of Things, the concepts are now constructed by two words, usually one of them is the adjective "smart". Roads have not managed to escape the trend. The smart roads of tomorrow promise to be able to keep the cars that pass over them under observation, to warn about incidents, to favor traffic, to reduce the risk of accidents or to establish a connection in real time with the vehicles that roll on them. Although these designs are still in an initial phase, the proliferation of different pilot projects shows the great interest in them.

The connected European roads

One of these initiatives is C-Roads, a project promoted by the European Union that intends to start  preparing the roads for the autonomous future that awaits. Initiated in 2016 by eight member countries –Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, France, Germany, Holland, United Kingdom and Slovenia–, its goal is to establish the bases for the use of intelligent systems in autonomous driving and cooperative transport, in short, initiating the way so roads can become connected and intelligent infrastructures in time. Thanks to their development, they also want to improve road safety, favor efficient traffic and reduce emissions.

Along with Denmark, Finland, Hungary, Italy, Norway, Portugal and Sweden, Spain has adhered to this futuristic program. Specifically, with a budget of 17.9 million euros co-financed by the EU, our country has recently announced that it will launch five pilot projects that will cover the Mediterranean Corridor, Madrid and the northern area of Spain. Even one of them will cover the entire national territory. It is the so-called DGT 3.0 that will be focused on the development of a platform that allows the interconnection of all the elements involved in the traffic ecosystem. Although each plan has its own peculiarities, all the projects will test, from the first moment, warning services to drivers about the risks that may occur on the road. The implementation of a self-driving model on our roads requires not only cars that are connected to each other, but also infrastructures that can also exchange information with vehicles.

Driving on the roads of the future

The solar project that charges electric cars

It is not the first solar road –there is one in France and a bicycle lane in the Netherlands– nor the first that charges cars –in fact, there are several proposals of this type–, but it is the first to combine both technologies. The two-kilometer stretch of the Jinan City Expressway is a pioneering initiative in the world. The Chinese project has been designed with the aim of not only generating electricity to introduce it to the electricity grid, but also to make it possible for the electric vehicles that circulate on it are recharged by magnetic induction. This road has the particularity of using transparent concrete in the upper layer which gives it, according to the professionals responsible for the work, the same properties as conventional asphalt.

Experts agree that electric cars are a safe bet for the future, in fact, more and more manufacturers are involved in the electrification of their ranges. However, if these vehicles set out a problem, it is precisely their level of autonomy and the time it takes to recharge them. The firms try to design cars that allow their drivers to roll more and more kilometers without stopping. The design and implementation of new infrastructures that allow wireless recharging can help to minimize this problem, however, the level of investment required is still very high.

Streetlights can also be "smart"

The road lighting also deserves attention. Although compared to other projects like the development of connectivity between cars and infrastructure or wireless charging, this may seem a trivial matter, the energy cost of lighting the network of highways in a country can be very high. The Norwegian company Comlight has developed a system of streetlights with presence sensors that detects the movement of cars and pedestrians. This technology allows the streetlights to awaken from their luminous lethargy when they pass and return to operate at 20% of their total power when no one is on the road.

Security first!

Many of the new road improvement projects aim to reduce the number of accidents. The figures of mortality in our country are particularly high –this year has registered the worst data since 2013– and the development of new initiatives, above all, with a technological nature can contribute to their reduction. The complete implementation in the future of the autonomous car promises to reduce these figures to anecdotal, although there is still much work ahead, therefore, the adaptation of the roads and preparation for their arrival is so important.

Meanwhile, there are many initiatives that appear with the aim of promoting safety at the wheel and avoid road risks as, for example, the intelligent signals that detect cyclists and warn drivers with light signals of their presence in La Rioja or the Californian digital license plates that, apart from having an attractive design and showing personalized messages, they warn about the incidents that occur on the road. There may even be autonomous police cars that supervise the traffic and without stopping warn drivers about the infractions that they commit and their corresponding traffic fines.

In order to the future become a reality, infrastructures also have to change. The automotive industry is moving fast, will the roads be prepared for such innovation?