A “Smart highway” has dozens of definitions, but the general understanding of it is a roadway that offers the possibilities for technological integration into the current transportation roadways. For example, integrating functions such as power-supply through solar panels, built-in sensors for structural maintenance and supporting functions that enable self-driving cars. Smart highways can potentially transform the passive service of providing accessibility to a road to instead actively generating value for the places where it is situated.
There have been several attempts around the globe that tried to realize the smart highway concept from different angles. However, they have all been troubled with similar issues: limited power efficiency and high monetary costs.
- In 2014, Netherlands’ SolaRoad pilot project created a 70-meter long bike path, with a goal to develop solar roads.
- In 2016, Idaho-based Solar Roadway installed a 14 square meter demonstration solar roadway surface in the US.
- In late 2016, Colas, Hannah Solar and The Georgia Department of Transportation built a 50 square meter solar-paved highway in a total 30-kilometre-long smart highway project – The Ray. The solution included a solar-powered EV charging station, a tire safety inspection station and solar power generation at one site along the highway I-85.
- In 2016, France built a 1-kilometre-long solar road in cooperation with Colas.
With their comparatively newer institutions, China has greater possibilities to embrace new technologies and adapt their infrastructure accordingly. China, therefore, has the ability to implement technology efficiently at a remarkably quick pace. In December 2017, they opened the largest stretch of solar road so far, measuring 5,864 square meters in the Shandong province. The technology not only allows for better placement of solar cells but also for easier implementation of solar technologies on concrete-based infrastructure. Besides, China has extensive experience when it comes to road constructions. Adding the relatively flexible bureaucracy to being at the forefront of technology and innovation, China has the advantages to become a leading actor for realizing smart highways. In a showcase toward this effort, the nation announced a plan to build a 161 km long “intelligent expressway”, which will integrate safety features to support autonomous driving, to link the nearby cities Ningbo and Hangzhou with Shanghai, in the Zhejiang province .
China has delivered many impressive developments at an extremely large scale in recent years, especially regarding new technologies and services related to internet use and artificial intelligence. With the nation’s dominance in the global supply chain for manufacturing and continuous push for development from the central government, it has gradually settled into the special position of being able to rapidly bring forth intelligent infrastructure projects at a vast scale with its in-house competencies. However, what comes after is the question of feasible business models for long-term success, both with regard to economics and technology. Maintenance and the potential for future add-ons to the intelligent infrastructure are also questions that need answers. Smart highways are just one example of many big scale innovation projects that China is involved in today. For example, they are building a brand-new green, intelligent and livable city from scratch close to the capital Beijing . What the nation will bring the world in the future remains to be seen.
Written by Anne Faxér, RISE Viktoria.
1. 2019-01-24. Why the World’s first smart highway will most likely be in China.
2. 2018-12-27. China’s first “intelligent expressway” is coming in 2022.
3. 2019-01-02. China approves 2018-2035 master plan for Xiongan New Area.