Back in 1852, Paris witnessed a revolutionary innovation that would change human communications forever: the construction of the road connecting it to Perpignan employing flexible tar mined from the deposits in Val de Travers, Switzerland. Until then, no real breakthroughs had bene made since the Roman designs. Later, this method would be improved with the use of sheet asphalt rolled over concrete, a technique first tested in the French capital in 1858. Further on, in 1900, a hot bituminous mix would be used to cover the rue du Louvre and Victoria avenue in Paris. Nevertheless, for a whole century the pace of innovation in roads would radically slow down. Vehicles kept improving their performance, power and reliability, while tarmac would remain pretty much unchanged. Finally, in the 21st century we are facing a giant leap—the introduction of smart roads. While we recently covered solar roads, this time we will be discussing a technology that allows roads to detect their own potholes and other hazards. The system, called ePave by its inventors, was recently announced in the Swiss scientific journal Sensors.
This project has seen computation experts from University at Buffalo and China’s Chang’an University jointly develop a network of wireless and self-powered sensors that provide information about the situation of a road in real time. Thus, transportation planners and connected vehicles can be kept in the loop concerning temperature, moisture and pressure of the tarmac.
Unlike other battery or solar-based technologies, the developers of ePave have chosen piezoelectricity to power the sensors of their system. In this way, the embedded sensors harness the electricity from the mechanical stress that vehicles put on roads.
“The sensors of this pothole-detecting highway are powered by the traffic moving over it.”
With the size of a keyring, the ePave sensors can be placed up to 500 feet apart, while relay stations just need to be within a 1000-feet range.
The technology is still in an early stage, but the researchers believe that the modules could be kept in operation between 5 and 20 years. Hopefully, we will soon enjoy a new ally to improve safety on the road.
Life-saving smart roads
We are currently at a time when a wide range of diverse technologies are intersecting and opening endless possibilities. Driverless vehicles, the Internet of Things (IoT) and 5G mobile data connections, which can connect millions of devices with an extremely low latency, are enabling projects like the one backed by Colorado’s Department of Transportation. This time, instead of preventing accidents, the technology aims to detect them once they take place. To achieve this, concrete slabs with embedded Wi-Fi sensors and pressure detecting fiber optics cables will be put into place.
The pilot project carried out over the next 5 years along a half-mile stretch of Highway 285, southwest of Denver, will test the feasibility of a system to detect vehicles that suddenly leave the pavement. The smart road will then alert emergency services and other incoming vehicles about the incident. Currently there are similar systems in operation, but drivers must submit the information themselves.
The main issue with the Colorado project is the cost. Integrated Roadways, the company behind the scheme, estimates that it will require a $4 million-dollar investment per mile and lane. However, regardless of the success of this system, we can rest assured that our road networks are in for great changes in the coming years.