The 'smart roads' on trial: do they have a strong technological base or are they just smoke?

Solar roads, smart traffic lights, predictive road safety... smart roads or smart roads bring together many disparate technologies. But which ones have the best chance of joining the tracks?

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In recent times, the British adjective smart tends to be devalued. Translated as intelligent, it is being applied to any new product or technology that breaks into the market in an attempt to enhance its properties.

Mobility has not been alien to "smartization". Thus, we find a multitude of technologies combined under the term of smart mobility, not to mention smart cities.

We have a project of these characteristics, but with credibility and real depth, in Woven City. Toyota's smart city is a large urban laboratory where the latest advances in pursuit of sustainability can be tested in a practical way.

Deriving from the concepts of smart city and smart mobility are smart roads. What does it consist on?

What are smart roads?

A smart road or intelligent road consists of a communication route for road traffic that has incorporated one or several cutting-edge technologies under the new prism offered by concepts of sustainability, connectivity or efficiency. Put like that, it doesn't sound bad. The complexity arises when the technologies that make a highway or public thoroughfare intelligent do not fully come together according to current mobility needs.

In recent years we can see several examples of solutions that have not taken hold and are not expected to do so in the short term. This generates a certain discredit that ends up eroding the name smart.

Even so, it is unfair to brand everything that the so-called smart roads bring together as smoke. Many public and private entities are benefiting from this trend, for example, with the Internet of Things (IoT) applied to road furniture or Big Data for traffic management and road safety.

In fact, they attract turnover that threatens to have a major influence on the automobile industry. Which smart calling technologies currently show the most potential and which ones fit more into the category of fireworks?

Smart roads or connected roads

This first category is, perhaps, the one that presents the most novelties to the mobility panorama. As in other sectors sensitive to the influence of new technologies, the road can come to life and be personified to offer a whole series of advantages.

The inscrutable paths of IoT and Big Data

The automotive industry has been submerged for several years in what we now know as the Internet of Things. It contains a seed similar to that of Car to Car (V2V) and Car to Infrastructure (V2I), expanded in subsequent generations to Car to People (V2P) and Car to Network (V2N).

Smart roads on trial: Do they have a strong technological base or are they just smoke?

All this terminology does not intend anything other than to explore the possibilities of total connectivity between all the agents and elements of the road. In fact, they have formed an essential part for the achievement of ADAS systems and the future of autonomous driving.

The introduction of large-scale sensors makes it possible to draw a virtual map to elucidate in real time what is happening on the streets and highways. There are already hundreds of practical examples of what these applications are capable of offering that we can find without leaving Spain.

We see them among the services of the company Asimob, based in Bilbao. Its work in favor of road safety is noteworthy thanks to developments that make it possible to anticipate bad road adherence conditions or even the prior detection of bumps and potholes.

Predictive road safety

Road safety is one of the priorities that motivates many of the programs that are already accumulated in half the world taking advantage of these characteristics. Thanks to the massive data computation instruments, a more effective study of the black spots on the roads can be undertaken.

It is about sifting, this time with the help of Artificial Intelligence and Big Data, the risk factors and causes derived from claims and accidents that recur in certain areas. The final goal is to find more effective solutions when it comes to preventing an accident.

Smart traffic lights and... the end of traffic jams?

We can benefit from this technological base in other fields. Smart traffic lights (or, again, smart traffic lights) drink from this idea. If we look for them, we find them in Vienna dedicated to pedestrians.

The traffic lights in the Austrian capital that use this solution know if a pedestrian is going to cross the road or not. And it is that they incorporate software with an algorithm prepared to read the intentions of the pedestrian according to their gestures and body movements. In addition, relying on machine learning techniques, the system stores the information to improve its response.

Smart traffic lights can also be extended, with similar innovations, to better control traffic flows. In fact, this leads many to think about fighting for the utopian eradication of traffic jams. No one knows to what extent retentions based on technological pills can be combated. This subject throws some more smoke.

However, it is worth exploring to what extent these techniques can contribute. For example, in the Chinese city of Xi'an they boast that they have made traffic 10% smoother thanks to it.

The autonomous car needs a road with minimal intelligence

If the autonomous car aspires to lead to our roads, it must have the confidence of the safe context offered by smart roads. What's more, some of the major obstacles facing autonomous driving have a lot to do with these developments.

We are talking about the elaboration of virtual maps that function as digital rails through which vehicles can move, or transit them in adverse weather conditions. Related to this, the thermal roads, capable of thawing ice and snow on the pavement, have also been praised as "smart".

The ability to glow in the dark

One of the most striking occurrences and that is usually related to smart roads (in this case, it seems that in a somewhat more forced way) are those materials that They can replace traditional paint on roads.

These usually store light energy during the day to release it during the night hours. This is the case of the Smart Highway developed in the Netherlands by Studio Roosegaarde and Heijmans Infrastructure.

Smart roads or sustainable roads

This category includes all efforts to reduce and eliminate the impact of transportation on the environment and increase energy efficiency. This transition applies, as is logical, to the motorization of vehicles. Now, can the highway contribute to promoting alternative mobility or does it mean oversqueezing the premise of sustainability?

Of course, the technologies already mentioned, especially Big Data and the IoT, will contribute to this. Mainly those that seek to increase the flow of traffic, reduce consumption or manage the clean recharging of the electric car.

Smart lighting

Once again "intelligence" to define those urban lighting networks that are designed to manage their energy delivery based on their use.

This is an important game. More than 3% of the consumption of electrical energy in the world goes to the lighting of streets and highways. It seems sensible to explore what "turning off the tap" can do in times of underutilization and, incidentally, alleviate what is known as light pollution.

Fiascos and promises of solar roads

Given the large area that roads occupy, can they be used to install photovoltaic panels that store electrical energy?

This type of project has a doubtful feasibility. Solar Roadways was commissioned to demonstrate the complexity of this mission in 2016. The American project foundered, proving impossible and taking with it several million dollars from donors and the United States taxpayer.

SolaRoad's attack on bicycle lanes in the Netherlands or the Colas project in France, financed with public money, seem more prudent and modest. This latest solar highway, with 2,800 square meters of solar panels, has also received its own criticism.

Roads that charge electric cars

Other "smart" roads, but paradoxically of doubtful feasibility, are those that make it possible to recharge electric cars by induction. Wireless charging is an old dream of electric mobility. Its utopian potential has brought countless dalliances, manhole covers that recharge cars included. The achievement of a reliable "scalextric" has more integers thanks to the SmartRoad Gotland project in Sweden.

And, incredible as it may seem, other more successful projects in this area do not use novel formulas with inductive charging so much, but rather traditional catenaries. They test them in Germany with hybrid trucks to reduce emissions in the sector.

As can be seen, smart roads encompass countless projects. We've just gone over just a few. The truth is that the presumed intelligence of these roads depends on the technologies they incorporate. Many of them will soon become must-have applications thanks to their benefits for road safety, connectivity and sustainability.

Images | Freepik/wirestock, Toyota, Flickr/Highways Agency, Wikimedia