UK Roads

In this instalment of Predicting Tomorrow, we’re looking at the future of roads and new technologies that are being developed to make them safer, easier to repair and even work for us.

If we want to think about predicting tomorrow for the automotive industry, we need to look at roads. Roads make up a large percentage of the ground in our cities, and they are often falling apart, at maximum-capacity, dangerous to drive on due to weather conditions and the road markings are worn off or difficult to see. Scientists, engineers, governments and a number of companies are working hard to develop new concepts that will improve the safety and overall lifetime of our roads.

The first thing we’ll look at is a very simple technique that is already being used in the Netherlands; glow-in-the-dark road markings (also known as Reactive Line Markings). This is something that would be handy in numerous places, but at the moment is being used on a limited number of roads worldwide. By using a glowing paint for road markings, it can recharge through the day and be bright and clear during the night.

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A further advancement that’s being developed by the same team as the glow-in-the-dark road markings is Dynamic Paint. The difference is that Dynamic Paint is only visible at specific temperatures. The reason this is being developed is so that a road can show a snowflake pattern when roads become icy so that drivers have a visual indicator that the roads are unsafe. By having paint that only appears during unsafe driving conditions should help reduce accidents and, ultimately, save lives.

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“Scientists are developing pollution absorbing gels that can be deployed on the side of high-traffic roads”

It’s not all just about paint though. Scientists are developing pollution absorbing gels that can be deployed on the side of high-traffic roads like motorways or A-roads. By using the gel in high-pollution areas, they hope to reduce air pollution in areas that suffer from high amounts of pollution. This is being considered on parts of the M1 motorway to reduce pollution around major cities.

Energy companies are also eager to use the empty space at the sides, and even above, motorways to their advantage. By installing small wind turbines along motorways, they hope to use the slipstreams created by cars travelling at high speeds in order to generate electricity. Some designers suggest numerous smaller turbines along the sides of the roads, others suggest larger ones positioned above the motorway like road signs. Either way, neither would be intrusive, so it’s likely that you’ll start to see these pop up as energy companies start looking for new ways to generate sustainable energy.

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Speaking of sustainable energy, popularity in solar energy is rising. More and more people are opting to install solar panels on the roof of their homes, but it’s also possible that we’ll start to see solar roads appear around the world. There is already a solar road in Normandy, France that is being tested before a larger rollout. By installing solar cells in to the road itself, we could be capturing energy without having to take up space in large areas of green land that could be used for something else.

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Due to the popularity in electric cars, and the concept of wireless charging, it’s likely that governments will choose to install charging lanes on motorways specifically designed to charge electric cars as they’re driving. These Induction-Only Lanes would increase the distance you’re able to travel in an electric car before having to stop and recharge. This concept is one way that scientists are trying to reduce what’s called ‘range anxiety’ – a feeling that electric car drivers get as they worry about the distance they’re able to travel in their electric car before they have to charge up. The only problem is that a lot of electric cars still need to be plugged in to recharge, so the cars themselves would need to be updated to work on these lanes.

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A huge problem in Britain, and in other countries, is the fact that roads crumble, crack, break and develop potholes. It’s annoying, and roadworks now cost upwards of £12 billion per year! Therefore, it’s a huge priority for companies to develop a self-healing road. By using polymers and techniques borrowed from self-healing windows and self-healing metalwork that is being used and developed by NASA on the International Space Station, small damage caused by long-term use, over-use or misuse would heal itself meaning roads last longer, costs for governments are significantly reduced, and road lifetime is significantly extended.

Furthermore, it's possible that governments will eventually opt to have roads specifically for piloted vehicles (self driving vehicles), and human drivers won't be allowed on them. There is definitely a big market in creating safer roads that actually work for us and keep themselves repaired after light damage.

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