Is this the end of the road for roads as we know them?

Sprawled across a bike path in Nuenen, Netherlands, 50,000 solar-powered stones are embedded in the pavement to glow in the dark and resemble Vincent van Gogh’s famous Starry Night. It was a commemoration of the 125th anniversary of the painter’s death – a “techno-poetry” that Dutch artist and urban architect Daan Roosegaarde described as “technical combined with experience”, a fusion of art and purpose.

But more than honouring a famous artist and his painting, Roosegaarde’s ingenious, unconventional and sustainable idea for lighting up our pavements is a statement on the transformation of roads for the future, or the lack thereof.

“Why do we put so much focus on vehicles, innovation and mobility but neglect the surfaces they drive on?” he asks. “Infrastructure defines our cities and landscapes way more than the cars.”

It seems that on our journey to the autonomous future, we have forgotten our roads, literally.

But it’s inevitable, as the Fourth Industrial Revolution ushers in new technologies, that the way we conceptualise and build our roadways will be utterly reconfigured. What’s the use of having smart cars if our roads are dumb? And with opportunities for innovative reinvention like never before, have we possibly come to the end of roads as we know them?

What our roads will be made of …

Realities like globalisation and urban overpopulation demand we replace traditional materials and techniques with sustainable solutions, as well as the fossil fuel guzzlers that wear out the pavement.

New construction materials offer alternatives with in-built renewability capabilities. Dr Rajagopalan Vasudevan, dean and professor of chemistry at India’s Thiagarajar College of Engineering, found that molten plastic mixed with a stone and bitumen mix is an excellent binder, creating a stronger and longer-lasting road. An estimated 100,000km of roads in India are made up of plastic, inspiring companies such as MacRebur Plastic Roads Company to use it as well to build roads in the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

Similarly, the use of fly ash and slags from mineral refineries in concrete construction has been beneficial in reducing carbon emissions and for the disposal and neutralisation of waste. Innovations like self-healing concrete are extending the lifespan of old concrete, with self-activating limestone-producing bacteria that congeal in pavement cracks as they form.

Modern pavement engineers are pushing the boundaries of form and function, seeking effective ways to close the loop on conventional construction outputs. In 2018, architects Carlo Ratti Associati (CRA) and Sidewalk Labs (owned by Google’s Alphabet) launched a prototype of Dynamic Street, a series of “hexagonal modular pavers which can be picked up and replaced within hours or even minutes” and enable us to change the function of the road with much less disruptions to the street.

According to CRA, Dynamic Street “explores the different patterns that can be created on the hexagonal grid, as well as the integration of lights into individual pavers. Each paver can also potentially host a plug and play element – that is, vertical structures such as poles, bollards or even basketball hoops”. Just imagine how that would transform the construction and function of our roads.

Prized jewel

Solar roads may be the solar industry’s prized jewel, thanks to their large exposed surfacing that can harness solar energy to illuminate road markings and generate electricity. As Roosegaarde puts it: “Energy is everywhere. We just need to know how to harvest it.”

While there have been criticisms on its efficiency and cost-effectiveness compared with rooftop solar panels, several projects around the world continue to work on developing the technology and explore how roads can play a greater role in generating energy.
In the Netherlands, the N329 – Road of the Future – has replaced streetlamps with glow in the dark lines on the pavement made of photoluminescent paint, designed for recharging by sunlight before glowing at night for up to 10 hours. North Holland’s Dutch SolaRoad pilot project created a 100-metre cycleway that generated enough electricity to power one household for a year.

Most notable is China’s latest 1000m smart road. Paved with solar panels, mapping sensors and electric-battery rechargers, the pilot project aims to be the first stage of “intelligent highway” design that weaves the autonomous vehicle (AV) revolution into one digital and unique experience.

‘Smartening’ our roads

Coupled with the wave of innovation to design for sustainability, there is an equal imperative to make new and old infrastructure “smarter”.

As AVs dominate streets and highways, roads need to act as an intuitive and technologically integrated system that can host these transport innovations. In the future, roads will not be seen simply as empty conduits to move vehicles from one place to another, but environmentally regenerative, digitally responsive networks.

Magnetisable concrete is the latest invention that could revolutionise the electric vehicle (EV) industry. By embedding a highly controllable, resident-coiled technology into a designated lane, EVs can charge up on the go. The result is a streamlined highway, void of charging stations and an unbeatable value-for-money EV industry.

Naturally, the reconstruction and retrofitting of roadways will demand a new eye for urban planning, and a new perspective about public/ private partnerships. While all developments to “smarten” our roads are still in the works, all sectors have to collectively start thinking outside the box now before it’s too late.

In fact, Singapore’s Smart Mobility 2030 is consolidating perspectives and inputs from the Land Transport Authority (LTA) and the industry on how to develop a comprehensive and sustainable Intelligent Transport System (ITS) ecosystem in the country. It is conducting research and development of AV technology in preparation for its deployment in Singapore.

It makes sense. The AV revolution will require third party involvement in planning, technology consulting, design and other non-traditional services that accompany smart road development to make this utopian idea a reality.

“Mobility is a fundamental right. It underpins all aspects of societal development allowing everyone, from individuals up to whole nations, to develop and prosper,” says Olga Landolfi, Telematica Trasporti e Sicurezza Italia Secretary General in the International Road Federation Vienna Manifesto on ITS. “ITS has already demonstrated [that it is] an essential tool for improving mobility and quality of life. The challenge now is to start using it to its full potential, to maximise the benefits that ITS can bring to society.”

Despite all they promise in road safety, ecological efficiency and connectivity, smart roads have a long way to go in the public and private eye. Greater education, research and investment models are needed to expedite their rollout and pave the way for AV innovation.

It’s not a question of which comes first: the road or cars? If we want to make the dream of autonomous vehicles a reality, we must remember the path we are travelling on.

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