Solar-powered LED signals in roads is one technology being investigated.

14 November 2013 — Roads that light up with massive snowflakes to warn of icy conditions, LED lighting that can see when your car has passed and turns itself off, and even a road that creates its own energy – these are some of the visions of roads for the coming decades.

One of Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s oft-repeated election slogans was about “building the roads of the 21st century”.

“I want to be known as an infrastructure prime minister and I want building the roads of the 21st century to be a hallmark of my government,” Abbott said the day after being sworn in, in a speech regarding the WestConnex motorway in Sydney.

But what is a “21st century road”?

Is it simply a hollow catchphrase that could more concisely be referred to as a “road”?

Charlie Hargroves

Curtin University’s Charlie Hargroves hopes not.

He’s part of the Sustainable Built Environment National Research Centre, a key research broker between industry, government and research organisations servicing the built environment industry.

As part of the SBENRC’s “Greening the Built Environment” research program, Hargroves is working with Curtin’s Professor Peter Newman and Queensland University of Technology’s Dr Cheryl Desha on a project called “Strategies and Solutions for the Future of Roads”, which is looking at the very question of the future of roads – and there’s some very exciting innovations on the horizon.

“In this 21st century it will be a much different economic and environmental situation than it was in the last century, so we need to update,” Mr Hargroves told The Fifth Estate.

“What we’re trying to figure out is, in the 21st century, what are going to be the different conditions we’re going to have to incorporate into our road designs?

“We see it as an area that is critical to our country’s economic growth, and it’s going to face a lot of challenges in the future that it hasn’t faced before, and really is going to need some smart people looking at some complicated issues to try to prepare road agencies and the sector for what’s coming in the future.”

When we talk about roads, sustainability is rarely used in the same sentence, so why is the SBENRC interested in this area?

“The real focus on ‘why roads?’ for our team is that our research centre for 25 years has led the debate around the role of cars in our economy, and has traditionally been advocating a reduced use of cars, and we really want to complement that by looking at the infrastructure level,” Hargroves says.

“Roads are such a significant part of our country’s infrastructure investment, and they will be affected in ways in the future that they haven’t been before due to environmental changes, resource availability changes, road user preferences and vehicle choice changes.”

While the pressure on road agencies is “mainly financial” – the value of road construction in Australia is estimated at around $17.5 billion a year, with maintenance costs at around $5 billion a year and rising – Hargroves says there is always pressure for road agencies to show they’re acting in ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

“There will always be some form of pressure to reduce carbon emissions, and there’s a lot of road agencies that are really excited by the opportunities coming up in the space,” he says.

And with roads and their users representing 22 per cent of global carbon dioxide emissions, it’s an important area to tackle.

Sustainable technologies

So what are these opportunities?

“One area we’re looking at is the incorporation of renewable energy generation in road infrastructure,” Hargroves says.

“So you can have your off-site wind farms and that kind of great stuff, but what we’re looking at is, can we tender road projects that have renewable energy components in the actual road project?

“So things like if someone’s building a bridge, they can put some tidal or wave turbines underneath the bridge, or they can put some wind turbines under the bridge or inside the bridge structure.”

Roads could also be designed to allow electricity generation through capturing solar or kinetic energy, he says.

“Australia’s doing some great research on piezoelectric alternatives, where electricity is drawn from movement. I know CSIRO is doing some cool stuff with clothes that recharge your phone as you move. But there’s also work with roads: as cars are moving over asphalt, they create a little bit of movement in the pavement to generate a bit of electricity.

A concept for lanes that allow electric cars to recharge put forward at Dutch Design Week 2012

“But then there’s also ways – particularly in northern states – where some of these surface temperatures are getting up to 40-50°C – that’s within decent range to start to create electrical current just from the temperature differential.”

Solar panels could even be directly integrated into roads for signalling.

“Some of the cool stuff they’re trialling in Europe is actually to put LED lights integrated with solar panels into roads,” Hargroves says.

“So you can have active signage in the actual road. They can make it say what they want in the asphalt, like a big snowflake to indicate icy conditions ahead, or make it turn into a crosswalk.”

A similar concept has been proposed through the use of temperature-sensitive dynamic paint.

A temperature-responsive dynamic paint concept unveiled at Dutch Design Week 2012

Another area being looked at is smart roads, which uses information technology to control traffic flows.

“Smart roads is really an IT solution to use the knowledge of how the traffic is flowing to improve how the traffic is flowing, Hargroves says.

It’s used in a limited way in Australia but in Europe and the US its been taken to the next level.

“They have really good sensors that can shut off on-ramps because there’s just too much congestion, so it talks to the on-ramp and closes the boom gate and says no more cars for the next, say seven minutes because it’s too busy.

“And it’s about giving realtime data to users – ideally through their phone or GPS – on least congested traffic routes based on all the sensor data.

“From an environmental point of view, congestion to us means additional emissions by cars sitting there running, not getting off the road as quickly as they can.”

Reductions in energy demand from route and signal lighting changes is an area where the financial and sustainability benefits are well aligned, though there are some problems.

“It’s obvious LEDs are great, but how does that factor into road projects? There’s little things that cause hiccups, like if you’re going to retrofit existing light poles, when you change to LEDS you actually need a different spacing between poles to provide the requirements of light. The poles are designed on sodium vapour lamps, and are much too close to each other, and if you fill them with LEDs then you’ve got too bright a situation.”

One exciting prospect is using motion sensors to control lighting on rural roads, much like in many high-performing commercial offices.

A motion sensor lights concept put forward at Dutch Design Week 2012

“A hundred kilometres of freeway out in the top of Western Australia could be completely dark until a car enters the freeway and then as it goes along, a kilometre before and after the car the lights are on, and as soon as there isn’t any activity for a while the lights go off,” Hargroves says.

“So it’s really about trying to cut costs.”

For more up-and-coming technologies, have a look at this image designed by Neo Mammalian Studios.

What are the challenges?

Financially, a lot of these technologies are in their infancy so having a road agency employ them now is unlikely.

However, Hargroves says investigating these options now is vital for long-term economic sustainability.

“Initially when you think about these options you’d think they’re too expensive, but that’s what someone would have said about the mobile phone.”

“Initially when you think about these options you’d think they’re too expensive, but that’s what someone would have said about the mobile phone,” says Hargroves.

Environmental changes like altering rainfall patterns, greater salinity levels, increased fuel and resource costs, and decreasing resource availability mean that roads are getting more expensive to build and maintain, so innovative solutions are desperately needed.

“It’s an area where the infrastructure, we think, is potentially quite vulnerable in the future.”

Finance for roads

The tender process is another major stumbling block.

“Once it gets to the tender stage, it’s very difficult to bring in something new because there isn’t a process to assess the viability of it,” Hargroves says.

“So you’re like, ‘Well, I don’t know about this foamed bitumen or half-mixed concrete, or this new option, because we didn’t really consider it at the start.’ Once you get a fair bit down the road it’s quite difficult to add new things in.

“When we start looking at increases in fuel costs, or increases in resource costs, or greater levels of damage from climatic conditions, a lot of that stuff isn’t factored into tenders.

“If you’ve underestimated some of these factors that, at the moment, are quite unknown, then it adds risk to the project and adds risk to you in the future.”

A collaboration with the Infrastructure Sustainability Council of Australia – an in-kind partner – could help things along.

The potential is for ISCA to be a proxy for best-practice design, much like how Green Star or LEED is used in the design stage for buildings.

“We see it as a really valuable tool to inform up-front design, which is why we want to enhance and do what we can to inform the further development of that tool, and make it clear how it can be used for tendering,” Hargroves says.

Bring back the labs

Things have changed so little in the roads industry that we need to enhance our capacity to prove new options, Hargroves says.

Government, he says, needs to engage more with industry and universities to do more research and testing of innovations.

“Once upon a time we had state testing labs and companies had testing labs and universities had lots of testing labs; we did all this great testing 30-40 years ago, but now there’s very little of that going on.

“Because there’s so much that needs to be road tested, so to speak, it’s just not clear who should be doing that, and the mechanisms for doing that aren’t clear either.

“The question really is who’s responsibility is it to prove new advances in road construction? Is it state government’s responsibility, is it the contractor’s responsibility, or is it the professional bodies or the universities?”

Hargroves likes the method used by the Dutch government in the early 2000s.

“They encouraged the universities and the private companies to work together. It’s kind of like the [cooperative research centre] model – so there might even be a CRC for road technology.

“Universities are well-placed to do the research. And that does allow for a certain amount of unbiased investigation into these projects.

“But I would say it’s a combination of state governments providing clear questions about what they’re facing and what they want to know more about, and universities going back to the old days where we reopen our labs and start thinking about, can we be doing testing of products, testing or processes and testing of new systems?

“It’s a tough one, and it’s going to vary from state-to-state.

“We don’t want to take 10 or 20 years to investigate it, but it does need a proper look to figure out, for example, whether solar panels in roads is viable from an economic or maintenance point of view, or looking at the issue of changing bulbs in lighting.

“It might sound like boring stuff, but when you think about energy consumption and infrastructure investment, these are big ticket items for a lot of governments.”

2 replies on “The 21st century road could take you somewhere interesting… and more sustainable”

  1. Great piece highlighting the critical issue of change management in public infrastructure design and delivery and the nexus with sustainable development. Particularly interesting to consider the trend towards PPP procurement for these large assets, which will almost certainly see synergies developing between sustainable building movement, which has been heavily market driven in this country, and public infrastructure delivery. Who thought roads could be exciting?!

  2. To use renewable energies for street lighting and traffic lights is comparatively easy. But to run cars and trucks on genuinely renewable fuels and energy will be extremely difficult. Before this problem is not solved it makes little sense to build the motorways of the 21st century. I summed it up in my latest post:

    Sydney’s Westconnex road tunnel proposal based on too many untested assumptions

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