How Smart Highways Can Save Energy and Lives FEATURE
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A look at how technology is making highways smarter and safer.

In the tech-infused landscape of today, the phrase "roads of tomorrow" doesn't just mean a glimpse into the future. It means in this Internet of Everything (IoE) world, smart sensor-filled highways are revolutionizing transportation. As the demand for travel for business and leisure grows, and the need for sustainable driving routes subsequently follows, companies and cities are building technology solutions to renovate some of the most congested highway networks.

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While we're not seeing driverless highways filled with driverless cars just yet, smart highways are happening, and every city council, as well as a number of state and federal agencies should be paying attention. According to the research report "Smart Highway Market by Technology and by Display," conducted by MarketsandMarkets, the Smart Highways market will be worth about  28 billion  by the year 2019.

A Smart Highway project in the Netherlands is harnessing natural elements such as sunlight, temperature, and wind to save money and energy. Builder and developer Heijmans and designer Daan Roosegaarde recently launched the first glow-in-the-dark Smart Highway in the city of Oss, Netherlands. Absorbing solar energy during the day, the paint on the roads illuminates at night. This highway presents one of five concepts to be fully developed by Roosegaarde. Interactive lighting controlled by sensors, temperature controlled lighting, and small windmills activated by passing cars to generate energy are some of the other Smart Highway projects on deck for the designer. 

What About the Future of Smart Freeways in the U.S.?

In America, one of the country's most gridlocked highways is currently undergoing a high-tech makeover. The $80 million I-80 SMART Corridor Project, California's first smart highway, is being implemented to help reduce secondary accidents and related traffic congestion by providing motorists with real-time information about the freeway, major side streets and ramps. With 2,000 crashes a year, the project's goals are to clear up traffic and save lives.

"Currently, if there is an accident along the corridor [from San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge Toll Plaza to the Carquinez Bridge], motorists often do not know until they are at the site of the accident which lanes are blocked, or even that it is necessary to slow down," explains Ivy Morrison, public information officer for the I-80 SMART Corridor Project. "This creates secondary accidents, and associated traffic congestion, which triggers further accidents."

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The aforementioned domino effect will be cut off early through gantries with electronic signs that will be placed approximately two miles apart. Morrison says they're designed to provide information to motorists going westbound about driving conditions ahead. Variable Message Signs will indicate if there is an accident, debris, stall or other incidents. Lane Use Signs will show which lanes are open and which lanes are blocked further ahead, and Variable Speed Signs will show the corresponding recommended speeds. These smart signs are just the tip of iceberg.

Morrison says there will be approximately 100 existing or newly installed intersections with transit signal prioritization (TSP), also known as sensors. Emergency vehicle detection sensors will be installed at approximately 50 intersections or ramps. An around 50 existing or new SMART Corridor closed-circuit television (CCTV) cameras will be used for incident management.

Will Other Highway Projects Follow Suit?

The Interstate-80 Integrated Corridor Mobility Project is the first system of this extent in the state of California. 

"It is no longer possible to add capacity to California freeways," says Morrison. "Caltrans and partner agencies are therefore maximizing efficiencies of existing infrastructure through the use of technology. The I-80 Integrated Corridor Mobility Project is the one of the first projects of this kind, but certainly not the last." 

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About Melissa Jun Rowley

Melissa Jun Rowley is an award-winning journalist, on-air host, and content strategist with a passion for all things tied to social innovation.