Will a smart highway soon be in your area?

smart highway

Photo credit:Studio Roosegaarde & Heijmans

Driving has the potential to become much safer as "smart highway" technologies are developed to prevent accidents and reduce traffic congestion.

Just as "smart car" technologies have created vehicles capable of sensing other cars and avoiding collisions, highways one day may be able to detect accidents and warn motorists about traffic hazards, says Russ Rader, a spokesman for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Such highways already are being developed and tested, he adds.

"Technology is the future for vehicle safety," he says.

Karl Newman, president of the Seattle-based NW Insurance Council trade group, says insurance premiums are based on the risk of claims.

Highway technology that decreases accidents will reduce claims and insurance company losses. Once this happens, auto carriers will pass along their savings to policyholders, he says.

Here are four types of smart highways that are being developed worldwide.

1. Glow-in-the-dark highways.

In October 2014, Fast Company reported that a highway that glows in the dark to make it easier to see at night had opened as a pilot project in Oss, Netherlands. The stretch of highway is about one-third of a mile long.

The Glowing Lanes company, a collaboration between Dutch engineering company Heijmans and designer Daan Roosegaarde, hopes to expand this technology internationally. The project is called Smart Highway.

Glow-in-the-dark lane markers are designed to save energy as well as promote safety. Unlike reflectors, they don’t depend on car headlights to reflect light. Photoluminescent paint absorbs energy from sunlight during the day and glows at night.

The BBC reported that initially there were problems with the paint fading, but the designer says that issue has been resolved.

2. Smart highway signs.

In the U.S., the California Department of Transportation currently is planning the I-80 Smart Corridor Project on a 20-mile stretch of the I-80 highway in the San Francisco Bay Area.

The I-80 accommodates 270,000 vehicles per day, making it one of the busiest in the San Francisco Bay Area. 

Electronic traffic signs have been designed to warn drivers of accidents ahead and suggest alternative routes, according to an August 2014 report in the San Francisco Chronicle.

The project will include 11 overhead freeway signs that keep motorists updated on road conditions.

A May CBS News report said the $79 million project soon will begin testing during low-volume traffic hours. The goal is to make the system fully operational sometime in 2015.

David Hartgen, a retired professor of transportation studies at University of North Carolina and president of The Hartgen Group, a consulting firm based in Charlotte, North Carolina, says the potential downside to such highway signs is that they may distract motorists, taking their minds off driving as they read messages. 

Hartgen says such distractions could cause drivers to lose control of their vehicles.

There are also smart highways being tested in Washington. In the Seattle area, freeway signs warn drivers when there’s heavy traffic ahead and suggest alternate routes, Newman says. Highway officials receive this information from a series of cameras used to constantly monitor traffic, he adds.

These signs are even capable of warning drivers in individual lanes to slow down because of congestion or hazards ahead.

When accidents occur, the signs suggest alternate routes to channel traffic away until the damaged cars can be cleared away, he adds.

3. Highways that can melt snow.

In areas that are hit hard by winter storms, there's incentive to create roads that can keep drivers safe during harsh weather. Scott Brusaw, an electrical engineer in Sandpoint, Idaho, is trying to find a solution.

In September 2014, CNN reported that Brusaw envisions embedding solar cells in highways to store energy. These cells would power LEDs to light highway divider lines and heating elements to help keep roads free of ice and snow. He calls the concept "solar roadways."

His plan is to replace asphalt highways with a system of structurally engineered solar panels that would generate energy during the daytime.   

Brusaw believes solar roadways one day could generate enough clean energy around the world to end dependence on fossil fuels.

4. Exploring the potential of vehicle-to-infrastructure (v2i) communication.

Rader says researchers also are working on ways to make highways safer through vehicle-to-infrastructure, or "v2i," communication.

"There's a Department of Transportation program that's looking at this right now," Rader says. "The potential safety benefits are big. This could be part of a safer future on the road, with vehicles that can communicate with the infrastructure."

V2i involves mounting communication devices on bridges, traffic signals, stop signs and utility poles. These would send updated information to cars equipped with receiving devices to keep drivers informed about road conditions.

One of the goals of v2i is to prevent traffic bottlenecks so drivers can maintain constant speeds and avoid sudden lane changes.

"Changes in speed and lane changes cause the majority of accidents," Hartgen says. 

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