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Science, Maths & Technology

Lighting up the roads of the future

Updated Monday 29th April 2013

How far down the road are we in the technological evolution of our highways?

A Lightdome road stud A Lightdome road stud Surrounded as we are by daily technological advances, do you ever step back and wonder whether technological developments are in some way inevitable, with one advance leading necessarily to another, or that technology is somehow shaping society, rather than society specifying what it expects of technology?

As the OpenLearn free course Theories in technology evaluation suggests:

'[t]o a great extent people want to believe that technology can solve the problems of humankind (whether personal or collective) and by so doing is ‘liberating’. A food processor, coffee grinder, mobile phone or car are all obvious examples. However, let us not forget that technology can just as easily be considered an instrument of control, oppression and exploitation; hence the objection of some people to ID cards, and the Orwellian ‘big brother’ view of CCTV.'

One of the things that has always fascinated me about technological systems is the way we shape our environments to satisfy the needs of technology, and how these changes then make further particular technological advances in a particular direction either easier or harder to achieve.

As we rejoin forces with the Click radio programme on the BBC World Service for a series a programmes looking at the future of technology "on the road", a Route 66 for the Future, as it were, we'll be exploring the interplay between technology, our environment, our daily routines and society at large.

A great example comes in the first programme, with a report on Daan Roosegaarde's award-winning Smart Highways design project that demonstrates how fluorescent road markings that absorb energy from the sun during the day can provide up to 10 hours of glowing light marking out the edges and centre-line of a road during the night. As well as benefiting drivers, I can imagine benefits for pedestrians walking home from the pub in rural areas down otherwise unlit country lanes! But how will insect life fare?

See also: Interactive landscapes: Daan Roosegaarde at TEDxReset 2013

I can also imagine increasingly autonomous vehicles benefiting from highly visible lane markings in otherwise low light levels. An increasing number of car manufacturers are starting to include "lane assist" technologies (for example: Audi and Skoda Active Lane Assist System) that use cameras to identify lane markings on motorways in particular and can provide corrective measures if the car appears to be drifting outside of its lane. But how well do these systems operate at night? Might fluorescent lane markings improve their performance in such situations, and if so, might lane assist systems and fluorescent lane marking systems drive each others' adoption?

As a passive device, the original cats-eyes use reflected light from car headlights to mark out different areas of a road. While we are accustomed to "reading" cats-eyes, (white for lane markings or centre lines, red (on some roads at least!) for the outer edge of the road, it is also worth remembering that this reading, in part, derives from the fact that most of our roads have well-defined lanes. As Rwanda's Sunday Times suggests, lane discipline mediated by cats-eyes may not be universal, with police reporting from a trial of solar powered cats-eyes in Kigali that "[m]ost drivers usually don’t value the precaution of road reflectors embedded in roads, which has been one of the major causes of road accidents especially during stormy weather", and one taxi driver commenting "I usually see the reflective lighting equipment on the road but I haven’t clearly observed their importance, I just drive over them" (Source: 'Road indicators most ignored safety feature', Rwanda's Sunday Times).

In the UK, solar-charged, battery-powered cats-eyes that illuminate themselves as light levels fall are also undergoing trials (Highways Agency: New cat’s eyes light up lanes for Cheshire drivers). Once again, if these technologies become widely deployed, then other technologies may adapt to them and build on the utility they provide. However, problems could arise if the later technologies become dependent on the original one, for example, if lane assist technologies relied on or assumed the presence of fluorescent lane markings or lanes marked out by battery-powered cats-eyes.

Turned on by technology? Find out about studying engineering, technology and design at The Open University.

As well as farming solar energy, Daan Roosegaarde has also been exploring the possibility of harvesting energy from the road surface itself. As cars (or pedestrians) move over a surface, they impart energy to it, pressing down on the road surface. This energy can then be harvested in a variety of ways, such as the piezoelectric effect, which is described in the OpenLearn free course Piezoelectricity: motion from crystals as "the direct interconversion of mechanical and electrical energy in a material". That is to say, when you bend a material that demonstrates this effect, it can generate a small electrical current. While this effect is often exploited at small scale, for example in piezoelectric transducers used as as an alternative to strain gauges, at larger scale it can be used to harvest energy, as demonstrated by Innowattech Ltd's road and rail-based energy harvesting products.

If only small amounts of energy need to be recovered, such as the energy required to power a small sensor, then other forms of energy recovery system may be used. For example, in a poster on "Pervasive Sensing for Cost Effective Traffic and Road Condition Monitoring", researchers at Imperial College London's Centre for Pervasive Sensing describe means of recovering power through alternative force activated harvesters, along with solar energy and capture via geothermal energy gradients. One advantage of having powered sensors is that we can start to build radio circuits, or even small computing devices, into them. And one advantage of having "self-powered" electrical sensors is that there are no batteries that need changing - which means the sensors can be built into structures such as roads without the need to provide maintenance access.

Whether we'll be seeing fluorescent road markings in the UK sometime soon, let alone fully sensor instrumented, energy recovering road networks, I'm not sure. But one thing is certain - there's a lot of mileage to come yet in the technological evolution of roadways.

If you are interested in exploring the ways in which technology and society shape each other, and the ways in which we might evaluate the social impacts of new technologies, you may find the OpenLearn free courses Technology Evaluation and Theories in Technology Evaluation worth a look.


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