Source: Pexels CC0
Self-driving cars are on the horizon. However, self-driving cars don’t need the same roads as cars driven by people. Is America’s road infrastructure ready for driverless cars? And how will smart roads differ in design?
Let’s look at how we can protect the investment of a smart road, keeping the technology safe from the elements, while still providing for the needs of infrastructure for autonomous cars and future-proofing America’s streets and highways.
The Needs of Self-Driving Cars
Driverless cars don’t need wide roads to account for human error. Roads only need to be as wide as the widest car. Traffic signals could be a thing of the past as the cars will be in constant communication with each other to ensure they smoothly weave through traffic condition. This could free up more space for pedestrian areas and bicycle lanes.
It also means a complete overhaul of the nation’s road infrastructure, possibly replacing a good portion of roads. At the same time, it’s possible to upgrade existing roads to smart roads, a concept that, while still taking form, provides exciting possibilities for the future.
Smart Roads and Upgrading Infrastructure
What upgrades can be made to roads while infrastructure changes are underway? Everything from solar panels in roads, glow-in-the-dark lanes, and substances that can improve air quality.
Solar panels in roads is not a new concept, but it has not actually been feasible until recently. Daan Roosegaarde, a Dutch artist, is trying to pull together multiple concepts to create a smart road. These concepts include lanes that glow so that they are easier to see and temperature-sensitive roads.
While the solar panels could, theoretically, be used to help power nearby buildings, German engineering company Siemans is experimenting with overhead cables. These could allow diesel-electric hybrid freight trucks to tap into a source of electricity, burning less diesel and improving their MPG. Another energy source could be piezoelectric panels that, instead of utilizing solar energy, generate kinetic energy from vehicles traveling on the road. These could charge vehicles while on the road, no overhead cables needed.
Meanwhile, Shell, known for gasoline, is experimenting with using bitumen in roads to remove substances from the air, such as soot or carbon dioxide.
Sensors and communication nodes might be baked into roads, as well, providing easier, short-range communication. This could be used in applications such as detecting traffic and dynamically changing the speed limit, to relaying accidents or the status of a traffic light down the road.
Challenges in Upgrading
With electronics in the road, it’s imperative that roads be protected from moisture and water seeping up into the concrete.
Concrete waterproofing is critical on roadways with steel reinforcement, roads vulnerable to exposure to gases or other potentially hazardous chemicals, and bridges.
Smart roads equipped with smart technology and solar panels may increase the need for more robust and sophisticated construction liquids, including curing and sealing compounds to protect the concrete. Construction codes may even have to become more stringent in order to fully protect this new infrastructure.
The technology itself needs to be protected. Instead of just building roads and protecting the concrete from the elements to prevent them from physically falling apart or becoming unsafe and undrivable, engineers will need to ensure the new roads have physical integrity as well as operational security. The roads could theoretically still be safe to drive on, but the technology could be ruined if small amounts of water seep in, enough to damage delicate electronics, but not the road itself.
Hence the needs for membranes and waterproof, weather-resistant materials. A premium compound like the 1600-WHITE concrete curing compound can provide protection from both the sun’s heat and chemical degradation. Along with concrete, asphalt, and other roadway construction materials, equipping roads with fibre expansion joints will add the greater durability, longevity, and resistance to the elements needed for smart cars and the high-tech roads they rely on.
Concrete waterproofing will be essential in protecting highly sensitive subterranean equipment that could not only charge cars, but power local businesses or provide important information about road conditions. Autonomous cars and smart roads combined could change standards and expectations for both the construction and maintenance of transportation infrastructure. Potholes and normal wear and tear would become much more than aesthetic concerns. Commuters used to beginning the work day in their self-driving, internet-ready cars might come to depend on smart road technology. Keeping traffic moving and connected will mean protecting roadways — and the technology housed in and below them — from the elements more than ever before.
Is America Ready?
Not yet. A vast infrastructure already in place needs to be modified and improved for self-driving cars. With cars able to drive themselves, streets won’t need to be as wide, traffic lights can be phased out, and technology can be embedded in the very roads the cars travel on. Industries will shift, as sleeping in a car can replace motels. Gas stations will need more electric chargers. The cars themselves will need a wide adoption rate. In all, America is not ready — yet. But with some improvements and modifications, self-driving cars and smart roadways will be a very likely future.