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Efficient Engineering

Planning for the Roads of the Future

What we can expect to see on the roads—and what is realistic with today's technology and within the framework of President Trump's infrastructure plan.

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In World War II the U.S. saw how Germany was able to use the Autobahn to move military resources. While the government knew an interstate highway system would be beneficial, it wasn’t until FDR saw it in action that he signed it into law in 1944. The direct correlation of economy and speed at which goods are moved was well known, and as these new roads grew, so did the U.S. economy. The war did more than just inspire the interstate highway system, but also provided a large group of soldiers coming home that would need jobs.  

Today, the infrastructure of the U.S. is not what it used to be. In fact, the American Society of Civil Engineers has been grading our infrastructure for years. This year’s report can be found here. No matter what politics you are into the ASCE believes President Trump’s plan to invest 1 trillion over ten years in infrastructure is a drop in the bucket of what we will need to bring our grade up.

Whether the budget passes or not, this new report says the U.S. will need $2 trillion over ten years to fix the problems with our infrastructure. As technology moves faster and government is relatively slow, designing infrastructure has to be done with the future in mind. As large infrastructure projects are put in place for long periods of time, what is cutting edge today, might be out of date in ten years when this potential budget is planned to end. Trump’s plan is to speed things up by cutting red tape and relying heavier on the private sector. Either way, if we are rebuilding or upgrading we will need the best technology that is flexible to adapt to our future infrastructure needs. Just like as we saw the interstate highway system start, the next development in vehicle and road technology will be important to The U.S. economy moving.  

This image of 1920 New Orleans shows the rail line that was demolished in 1926. Today, New Orleans is ranked the best city for self-driving cars. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)


Currently, cars are shaping our cities. In the past, many U.S. cities had efficient intercity public transit systems. Then an odd thing happened, a conspiracy theory turned out to be true. The street car conspiracy led to many of these public rail lines being torn down and replaced with buses. The buses were much less efficient at getting people where they needed to go, which led to people getting personal cars. This greatly benefited the companies responsible for the destruction of these rail lines. Now we see cities designed around urban parking as traffic continues to increase.

Some cities are looking for a solution, but don’t have the money for a rail system. Looking at autonomous cars and hearing about smart cities, where should the money go to increase transportation of goods to keep our economy moving?

Autonomous vehicles often focus more on the first and last couple miles to get to a destination. This technology, other than perhaps Freightliner and OTTO, are focused on offering local services. Other countries are looking into advance rail and maglev trains, Elon Musk wants to go underground, and some companies, such as Lilium, Uber, and Airbus want to take to the sky with flying cars. Whatever technology wins, we currently are using roads, and it looks like we are far from seeing an end to them.

Road Tech

New road technologies are all about chemistry. Engineers are coming together to help improve road infrastructure. One project is to have the lines on the roads glow. In tests the paint lasted up to ten hours. This would eliminate the need for the infrastructure of lights on the roads while also helping to reduce accidents.

Glow-in-the-dark paint for roads is just in testing, and the abuse and lifetime needed for road construction might prove too much for this technology. Currently, reflective paints and tapes are already yielding impressive results. With just a little light, reflective paints or tapes can be seen from a far distance.

Another idea is to use the Industrial Internet of Things so that lighted roadways would only be lite when a car is sensed on the road. This would reduce energy consumption, but is increasing the infrastructures complexity. In addition, many lights used in these large exterior applications take time to turn on an off or can see shortened lifecycle by constant on/off cycles. This might lead to an even larger LED market, as they are cost-effective, durable, and can handle higher on/off cycles than most lighting technologies.

Other paint ideas included thermal reactive paints that can indicate if a road could be icy. This might have a hard time catching on as most cars, and probably humans, can indicate if conditions exist that are icy. Non-paint solutions seem to be gaining more speed. For example, electric vehicles are growing in popularity and need a way to extend the time a car can stay on the road. Wireless induction charging might be the answer.

“You have two types of wireless charging,” says Joachim Taiber, CTO of the International Transportation Innovation Center (ITIC). “The first type is when a vehicle is stationary. This could mean parked or, for example in a city, stopped at a red light. Looking forward, a second type allows an EV to charge while moving. A car could drive over a sequence of coils in the road to charge. You could charge multiple vehicles in parallel without needing them to stop.”

In London, Chief Highway Engineer Mike Wilson says, “The off-road trials of wireless power technology will help to create a more sustainable road network for England and open up new opportunities for businesses that transport goods across the country.” (Photo courtesy of Highways England)


Wireless charging can extend range and extend battery life for EVs. The infrastructure to integrate either type will be expensive, but remember, this would allow the city to make money as they are now providing the road and the power to drive on them. This could essentially move the profits from gas stations to the city’s budget for more infrastructure work. Not to mention free up some needed real-estate as some gas stations may not be needed anymore.

There are other challenges, such as some cars are ac and others are dc. It’s critical for EV and charging-station manufacturers to communicate and set up standards. For example, Korea already has city buses that operate this way, including two induction-charged public buses running between Gumi and the In-Dong district. These buses use batteries about one-third the size as you’d find in a typical electric car saving weight and increasing performance. 


An induction-charged public bus in Seoul.


Induction charging generally takes up 5 to 15% of the total distance. This means only specific sections of the road need to be integrated with the charging technology. To outfit a large to medium size cities it could mean charging sections that could total around 300 to 900 miles (This example used New York City and Buffalo NY, as they both have about 6,000 miles of roads). However, it may not be necessary to cover every road, and the amount of technology in the road could be reduced.

The induction charging used in Korea is about 85% efficient. A study by the Oakridge National Laboratory has shown efficiencies of 90 to 95% are possible. This meets the average efficiency of plug-in chargers (about 94%), and would allow buses and cars to operate without stopping. Cars that never have to stop and are self-driving could keep cities moving, and if our grid continues to use more sustainable practices to generate electricity the environmental gains will increase too.    

Road have always been a metaphor for life, but for our country it is more literal as they are the veins that keep our economy flowing. FDR’s New Deal created many jobs and a strong infrastructure. Currently, some of those public works built back then are still limping along. As other countries invest in new technology and upgrade infrastructure, the U.S. approaches the Centennial of the New Deal. Let’s hope it will serve as a milestone for how far we have come as a country, not how far we’ve fallen.  

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