For Highways, a Bright Future Without Streetlamps

charging lane

Charging lanes would allow electric vehicles to power up without slowing down. Credit: Studio Roosegaarde

With powder that glows at night and traffic lanes that generate images of ice crystals when it gets too cold, the Dutch are attempting to redefine driving in dramatic ways.

The innovations are part of Smart Highway, an award-winning project of a Dutch design team that represents a larger movement in the transportation industry.

Following a period during which the passenger vehicle underwent a tech overhaul that included the introduction of rear-view cameras and on-board computers, the focus has turned to the driving environment in an attempt to make traveling over land safer and more sustainable.

As data specialists find better ways to deliver information to drivers in real time, other projects look to do away with costly streetlamps. Embedded with glass, some highways in Minnesota and Michigan glow bright enough for nighttime driving.

“You don’t need extra lights,” said Nikolaus Papanikolopoulos, director of the Center for Distributed Robotics at the University of Minnesota. “It’s a really great way of increasing visibility.”

Roads Double as Batteries

The technology espoused by Daan Roosegaarde and Heijmans Infrastructure in the Netherlands will get a trial run later this year when they apply the prototypes they presented during Dutch Design Week in December to a stretch of highway.

They’ll replace the paint used to demarcate lanes and shoulders with a different kind that charges in daylight and glows in darkness.

“The use of glow-in-the-dark paint would be an alternative to normal road markings,” said Hans Goris, an innovator at Heijmans. “The advantage would be to use only road markings and not require additional public lighting to allow safe driving in rural environments.”

When temperatures drop below freezing, drivers may notice another unique feature on the road surface — images of ice crystals made from “dynamic paint,” which becomes visible in response to fluctuations in temperature. The images — meant to warn drivers of the potential of icy conditions — are automated and don’t need electricity to work.

In later years, Roosegaarde and Heijmans hope to add a special lane where electric vehicles can charge their batteries through induction without slowing down. It’s the same technology used to charge some electric wireless toothbrushes.

These ideas and others won Roosegaarde and Heijmans “Best Future Concept” at the Dutch Design Awards.


Charging on the Go

Their use of induction charging has already seen applications in the mass transit industry.

Bordeaux in southwestern France has an induction-powered tram that operates without overhead wires. And, WAVE Inc., a company created by Utah State University, has developed the “Aggie bus,” which charges via magnetic induction at stops.

Electric car-charging lanes are not as clear-cut, Goris said.

“Vehicles swerve in their lane, limiting the efficiency of power transfer,” he said. “Intermediate steps are feasible now. For example, taxis that always stop in the same lane at the train station and the airport could easily be charged.”

Papanikolopoulos said there aren’t enough electric cars on U.S. roads to make charging lanes worthwhile.

“If you have four out of 10 cars needing a charge it might work,” he said. “But one out of 100, it’s a waste of capacity.”

Delivering Info to Drivers

Most transportation innovations in the United States have involved providing travelers with up-to-the-minute information, said Scott Belcher, president and CEO of the Intelligent Transportation Society of America.

“Traffic management centers are gathering data from loops, sensors and cameras in highways and are pushing that data out through the [U.S. Department of Transportation] 511 system or different transit systems,” he said.

The company Inrix has an app that provides real-time information related to accidents, road closures, weather and congestion. Belcher said his favorite traffic app is Waze, which relays crowd-sourced information about detours and where to find cheap gas.

Humble road signs have also evolved and can now allow authorities to notify drivers about delays and reduced speed limits. Traffic signals can be programmed to give the green light to buses and emergency vehicles, Belcher said.

“Dumb traffic signals are set on timers,” he said. “There’s nothing more frustrating than sitting at a red light with no traffic in any direction.”

Brita Belli is the editor of E—The Environmental Magazine and the author of two environmental books. Her writing has appeared on Environmental Health News, and the website of National Geographic.

Brita Belli
Brita Belli is an award-winning journalist and author of the book "The Autism Puzzle: Connecting the Dots Between Environmental Toxins and Rising Autism Rates." Her articles have appeared on and the websites of The New York Times and National Geographic.
Brita Belli
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