[Infographic] How do smart highways work?

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Susan Meyer

Senior Editorial Manager

  • Licensed Insurance Agent — Property and Casualty

Susan is a licensed insurance agent and has worked as a writer and editor for over 10 years across a number of industries. She has worked at The Zebr…

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Ross Martin

Insurance Writer

  • 4+ years in the Insurance Industry

Ross joined The Zebra as a writer and researcher in 2019. He specializes in writing insurance content to help shoppers make informed decisions.

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In July 2020, Tesla announced production of a “Gigafactory,” a $1.1 billion assembly plant, in Austin, Texas. It’s a major move in the smart car industry, as companies like Daimler AG, Toyota and more are all looking toward the future. But even with the development of smart cars, traffic congestion remains a real problem. INRIX reports Americans lose an average of 100 hours and $1,400 every year because of traffic congestion. What’s more, while smart cars can be great for quick trips, they’re not necessarily built for long, sustained drives.

As more focus is pointed toward economical and sustainable transportation, companies are starting to experiment with smart highways as both an efficient and eco-friendly solution. But how do smart highways work? 

Check out our animated infographic that explains how smart roads are the way of the future!

At a basic level, smart highways (also called smart roads) are catch-all terms for the ways technologies are incorporated into the road. This can take many different forms, though these technologies generally aim to improve the effectiveness of connected and autonomous vehicles, traffic lights and monitoring data of drivers, such as speed, traffic levels and road conditions.

Automatic electronic tollways are a current example of a smart highway in action. In the past, a toll would require you to slow down at a gate and hand bills or coins to an attendant or toss the correct change into a bucket. Those gates could get backed up, causing additional congestion on the highway and further delaying drivers.

Now, electronic tollways make it easy to maintain a consistent speed while still paying the toll. You simply place a small device or sticker on your windshield, like the TxTag in Texas or the I-PASS in Illinois, and a combination of laser, RFID, video imaging treatment and thermal cameras track your vehicle. AI learning software can monitor license plates and other vehicle factors, making the entire transaction seamless.

Another modern-day smart highway advancement is GPS, or the ability to use cellphone data to transmit your vehicle information to map apps. Google Maps, Apple Maps and Waze can analyze data like where you live, businesses you visit, how long you stay at a location and your travel patterns. They use that data to provide the best and fastest route for you, taking into consideration additional road factors, like congestion, construction or other delays.

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Types of smart roads (and how they work)

The above are just a few examples of technology that’s helping power smart highways. Cities and countries are looking at other ways to embed technology into the highway, creating a new kind of driving experience.

For example, electric vehicles are becoming more prevalent on the road. As they do, smart highway solutions must take them into account. Currently, vehicle charging technology only exists for static cars, but we could see the ability to charge an electric car while it’s moving. Electric cars could have a priority smart lane — the vehicle can use a receiver coil to collect electromagnetic oscillations from embedded cables in the road when the car drives over, converting those oscillations into AC and powering the car.

Solar panels are another area for growth. Rather than using asphalt to pave roads, solar powered roadways use panels of tempered glass containing photovoltaic cells, LEDs and microprocessors. As a result, cars would experience benefits like snow-melting heating devices, charging capabilities and safer stopping ability.

Cities can also use WiFi signals to monitor vehicles, counting variations in vehicles, between bicycles, cars, and trucks. Tracking traffic flow with WiFi is advantageous because it can handle weather conditions like rain or thunderstorms. It also doesn’t need to hold data for long periods of time, which helps with data flow and privacy concerns. Additionally, WiFi itself can track weather patterns, alerting drivers to potentially dicey weather near their usual smart highway (locations) or smart roads.

Finally, smart lights are on the rise, too. Think about a time when you were the only car approaching a traffic light and it turned green soon after you arrived. That’s smart technology embedded in the light and road. It identified that no oncoming traffic was coming and let you proceed quicker than normal. Cities are taking this to the highways, too. Between glow-in-the-dark lighting and motion-sensitive road lights that turn off when the road isn’t being used, future transport is looking bright.

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What’s the future for smart highways?

We’re just scratching the surface of future roads, and yet, we’re already seeing great examples of intelligent transport systems. Cities are looking at Vehicle-to-Everything (V2X) technologies and solutions, which includes Vehicle to Infrastructure (V2I), Vehicle to Vehicle (V2V) and Vehicle to Pedestrian (V2P) use cases, applications and services.

For example, in an attempt to save energy, the Netherlands would sometimes turn off lights near less-frequently used roads. Of course, even with fewer drivers, that’s still incredibly dangerous. To solve that challenge, the country introduced glow-in-the-dark lighting on their highways — smart, motion-sensitive road lights. Using photoluminescent powder mixed with the road paint, roads will light up at night, making lane lines, medians and barricades more obvious. In addition, those roads offer safer experiences for drivers.

The Netherlands also introduced the SolaRoad project in October 2014, creating a 70-meter stretch of bike path that was powered by solar energy. It was met with enthusiasm and considered a successful project, producing almost 10,000 kWh in its first year. SolaRoad has inspired projects in other countries, too.

In China, companies like Shandong Pavenergy and Qilu Transportation have installed plastic-covered solar panels along roads throughout the country. By generating electricity from highways and roads instead of in fields or deserts filled with solar panels, cities can conserve land and save on energy costs. Solar roads can also use electric heating strips to melt snow or ice, provide illuminated signage for exits and hazards, and would likely need to be replaced less often than asphalt roads. That would result in less construction on highways, easing traffic congestion. 

While these roads have great potential, there are still more initial upfront costs, and there are concerns over the amount of damage solar panels could take, as well as the risk of theft. And sometimes, they don’t work as well as expected.

French company Colas has developed 25 experimental solar roads and parking lots in France, Canada, Japan and the United States. The company also created the Wattway in December 2016, the longest solar road in the world. However, it deteriorated within two years, produced half the expected electricity and created substantial traffic noise. 

Wattway may have ultimately failed, but it sparked some interesting alternative suggestions for future endeavors. For example, smart highways could use angled solar cells instead of having them lay flat on the road, or more cars could be built with solar panels on their roofs.

We’re just scratching the surface on what smart highways can accomplish, but there’s plenty of excitement on the horizon and our cars are getting smarter too. If you plan on upgrading this year, consider checking to see if your car insurance quotes are the lowest possible. With more successful projects, we could see more efficient and safer roads — and that’s a benefit to all drivers.