Cars that drive themselves may seem like a long way down the road. But the government is already preparing for the journey into the future. It is encouraging ideas for new infrastructure such as the smart pavement that take advantage of the so-called smart car.
One innovation that has caught the attention of experts is a new type of road. This employs embedded LED lighting technology to indicate a change of use.
Called FlexKerb, it is to be trialled in London. By using colour coding it can adapt according to traffic demands at different times of day.
Its creators say it could change from a cycle lane to a parking and charging bay for driverless vehicles depending on real-time traffic conditions and local infrastructure needs.
How the smart pavement works
The idea has been developed by Arup, the British infrastructure engineering company. The government has shortlisted it for funding so the idea can be developed and tested.
Over the course of a day a FlexKerb section of road uses embedded LEDs of different colours to indicate its function. Arup suggests uses including an autonomous vehicle rank at rush hour, a cycle path at lunchtime, pedestrian plaza in the evening and even a loading zone overnight.
Real-time traffic information would manage the use. This employs data from a new generation of traffic lights, smart cameras and autonomous cars that are connected to the Internet.
FlexKerbs would match demand and achieve local transport goals, Arup says. The National Infrastructure Commission likes it so much it named FlexKerb one of five ideas to receive £30,000 of funding. This money will be put toward both computer-modelled and practical trials. If the idea wins outright, a further £50,000 will be awarded in the autumn.
The roads of the future
Bridget Rosewell, who led the judging panel for the Roads for the Future competition, said: “We cannot afford to focus purely on the technology under the bonnet. We must also consider how our roads will work to support new driverless cars from the moment they arrive.”
Associate director for transport consulting at Arup Susan Claris said: “The streets we have at the moment have mainly been designed many years ago before different types of technology or changes in travel behaviour came along. This idea is about having something that’s more responsive and more adaptable to changing travel patterns.
“A key part of it is having streets that are healthier places for everyone. Rather than trying to maximise vehicle throughput, which was the thinking that characterised transport planning 20 or 30 years ago, it is about looking at how streets can be managed to make them healthier and happier places, and more economically viable.”
In the past, the idea of ‘shared-space’ roads has come in for criticism. The Chartered Institution of Highways and Transportation has found that some blind and visually impaired people avoid using shared-space roads.
Claris said that safety was part of the challenge: “We need to look at it in more detail and see how that can be resolved.”
Other clever roads
Other examples of evolving road infrastructure include solar roads, which capture energy and could be used to power local communities. In France and the Netherlands progress is being made on developing such technology.
On the outskirts of Amsterdam in the Netherlands, engineers have installed a solar road surface. This generates electricity and can be driven over.
The 70-metre test track along a bike path features solar technology beneath the surface of the road. The panels generated over 3000kWh in six months, enough to provide a small household with electricity for a year.
And in Sweden, one mile of electric rail has been embedded in a public road near Stockholm, as the nation experiments with how it can achieve independence from fossil fuel by 2030.
Much like a giant Scalextric track, energy is transferred from rails in the road via an arm from the bottom of a vehicle. When the car moves to overtake, the arm is automatically disconnected.
Read more about smart roads: Electric car charging roads experiment in the UK