‘Smart’ highways, intended to facilitate the rollout of autonomous vehicles and enable them to run smoothly when no longer driving on the roads and streets of digitised Smart Cities, are undergoing testing all over the world – in Europe, the United States and in several Asian countries. In China, however, the government has decided to go a step further and redouble its efforts to drive forward innovation in this field, as part of a wide-ranging programme to accelerate the digital transition which the country is undergoing. China is in fact today the biggest market in the world for electric cars and has ambitions to become the world leader in self-driving vehicles in the near future, having set a target of 10% of the global autonomous fleet. The Chinese are therefore making it a priority for to install ‘smart’ road infrastructure in order to enable autonomous vehicles to operate optimally. A first 160-kilometre section of motorway with basic digital functionality, linking the towns of Hangzhou and Ningbo in eastern China, is currently under construction, with a planned completion date of 2022. This stretch of highway will be equipped with a built-in detection, monitoring and forecasting system designed to ensure safety and security and improve traffic flows. This is a first step towards a genuinely intelligent highway.
LATEST ROAD INNOVATIONS TO BE FOUND IN ASIA
New generation roads
Deputy Head of the Science and Technology Department at China's Transport Ministry
The ministry is now working to develop smart highway systems to support the smart cars that are coming
Looking to go beyond this first initiative, Chinese engineers have developed a road surface specially designed to serve as a platform for autonomous driving. Photovoltaic cells embedded below the transparent but extremely robust surface will generate electricity to feed into electric vehicle (EV) batteries, enabling them to charge up as they pass along the road. At the same time, sensors embedded under the surface will collect an array of real-time data on the road situation, the state of the vehicle, and the local weather conditions, and also receive updates regarding the traffic flow on the itinerary taken by the vehicle. Going forward, this data will enable autonomous vehicles to take decisions more easily and navigate the route more efficiently. Not only will smart roads provide a solution to the issue of how to recharge EVs – currently the main obstacle to their more widespread deployment – but the valuable data which they collect and pass on will turn them into veritable ‘assistants’ for autonomous driving. So we are now seeing the early steps in the development of a genuine road-vehicle interface that will enable self-driving cars to stay connected and recharge their batteries while on the go. In the near future, it will thus be the highway which feeds road vehicles with information and power as they drive along.
This new technological paradigm, which looks set to bring about a radical change in the way we use roads, is currently being trialled on a section of the expressway around the city of Jinan by R&D experts working for Qilu Transportation, a Chinese company that is at the cutting edge of transport engineering. To date, they have succeeded in embedding sufficient numbers of photovoltaic cells under the road surface to power the entire signalling system that controls road traffic, plus the surveillance cameras, toll-booth installations and lighting. This is a start. However, much more electricity than this will be required to feed self-driving cars with power and information. Especially as the Chinese are intending to develop the use of solar power on the roads in a much wider context.
"The highways we have been using can only carry vehicles passing by, and they are like the generation 1.0 product. We’re working on the 2.0 and 3.0 generations by transplanting brains and a nervous system.
Emperyland, a Shanghai-based startup that specialises in solar power, has developed hexagonal smart paving stones which might become the norm for building the motorways of tomorrow. These highly robust paving stones, which measure 70 centimetres across, are able to withstand temperatures ranging from minus 40° to plus 50°! With a minimum lifetime of 50,000 hours, they are sufficiently resistant to stand up to intense automobile traffic over long periods. The paving stones are equipped with a lithium-ion battery and six photovoltaic panels made out of monocrystalline silicon, which use micro-undulators to convert the accumulated solar energy into electricity.
In order to recharge EVs, the smart paving draws on electromagnetic induction. In other words, the smart paving and the electric reception terminal in the vehicle are completely insulated and the energy is transmitted by electromagnetic flow. Using this system and taking the accumulated power from all the paving stones, a one-kilometre stretch of road would be able to supply around 500 families with electricity. This is almost enough power to enable self-driving vehicles to run with full autonomy. Meanwhile, Emperyland is planning to draw on other resources as well in order to generate the power required.
ON THE PATH TO THE INTELLIGENT HIGHWAY
An augmented, zero-carbon road
COMING SHORTLY: THE ZERO-CARBON HIGHWAY
The Shanghai startup has also developed a solar lamppost which, working in tandem with the smart paving, is capable of generating 3.8 kW of electricity every hour but requires only a fifth of that amount of power to light up the road.
The surplus electricity can therefore be stored and redistributed, either to maintain or boost the flow of data to and from the self-driving cars or supply houses or companies situated close to the roadway. The smart paving therefore includes among its various benefits the potential to become a powerful zero-carbon energy vector. Not forgetting road safety: in winter time, when temperatures are below freezing, this new invention will be able to draw on its store of energy in order to heat up the road, de-icing the surface or melting the snow away and thus improving road safety without having to wait for human intervention. Last but not least, the data collected via the smart paving will be sent in real time to the highway police, who will be able to track traffic flows to the second and intervene to prevent traffic jams forming.
“In the future (…) the road will feel and think to figure out how heavy the vehicles are and what kind of data is needed.” - Zhou Yong
Another important point is that this smart paving is also intended to cover the streets of Smart Cities, thus holding out the prospect of a unified system for both exchanging road information and generating electricity, linking the countryside with the cities. In the near future, a vehicle could draw on data support from the moment it leaves the garage through to its final destination, using the same transmission point on the ground.
While Qilu Transportation and Emperyland are currently out at the cutting edge of Chinese innovation in the field of road engineering, a number of startups are also working to develop innovative new technologies in this domain. The determined support of the Beijing government, which has also recently announced the imminent arrival of 5G wireless networks, is likely to help position China as a world leader in both autonomous vehicles and futuristic highways within a few years. Watch this space!