The highways of our future will be made from self-healing, glow-in-the-dark materials, and governed by sophisticated technologies that communicate with cars, road infrastructure and GPS systems, a report by Arup envisages.

The Future of Highways report looks at the implications of trends and themes such as rapid urbanisation, climate change, resource depletion and changes in human behaviour up to 2050, and how they will shape roads in the future.

“Anticipating and researching future trends will help us move towards a connected, low-carbon future, where mobility solutions put users at the heart of design and potential challenges are addressed as early as possible,”says Tony Marshall, Global Highways Business Leader at Arup.

Arup suggests that surfaces could be replaced with advanced solar panels that would generate clean and renewable power, and wirelessly charge electric cars as they are driving or are parked – ideas that could soon be possible with Solar Roadways’ crowdfunding campaign to help advance their vision of installing energy-producing solar panels on roads across America.

The panels would also contain LED lighting and heating elements to melt snow.

Exploring how to minimise the impact and frequency of maintenance work on infrastructure was also a key theme in the report, especially with the vast increase in the number of road users. The report anticipates the development and use of materials such as self-healing concrete, which produces bacteria to fill cracks when the concrete gets damaged.

Such an invention would significantly reduce the cost and increase the resilience of infrastructure, whilst having considerable environmental benefits as seven per cent of the world’s CO2 emissions are currently due to concrete production.

Above: biological concrete developed by researchers by Ghent University, which uses a hollow glass capsule with an internal diameter ranging from 0.8 to 4mm to hold the self-healing agent. Image: The Engineer

Already researchers at the University of Beth, Cardiff University and the University of Cambridge have created a concrete blend full of bacteria hidden in tiny capsules for the purposes of plugging gaps and cracks formed on roads. As soon as the mixture gets wet, the bacteria bursts out of their cases and produce limestone, which seals the gap before the crack widens to become a pothole.

Such a product could be a cost effective cure for ‘concrete cancer’, caused by the swelling and breaking of concrete, which plagues many buildings.

Future of Highways also foresees the use of temperature-sensitive paint on roads, which will generate giant snowflake-shaped warnings to indicate a drop in temperatures and icy conditions.

“While temperature-sensitive paint and solar surfaces may seem far-fetched, the innovations envisioned in this report are already being tested and piloted around the world. They will change the way that we approach mobility and freight transport and will prove safer, more reliable and more environmentally friendly highway infrastructure for generations to come,” says Marshall.

Future vehicles and traffic

As well as highways evolving, the report foresees changes in patterns of ownership in coming years, with commuters more likely to purchase access to a vehicle rather than the vehicle itself, as well as the availability of more intelligent vehicles that will open the market to people previously unable to operate vehicles, like the elderly or disabled:

“Vehicles will become increasingly ‘intelligent’ and ‘self aware’: a combination of the connected vehicle and the Internet of Things will enable vehicles to broadcast and receive information on traffic, speed, weather and potential safety hazards. As a result, cars will be able to travel closer together and react more quickly to variables around them.”

Electric cars are also anticipated to become commonplace on future roads as developments in material science improve the performance of batteries and the potential for increased electricity storage. Fully-automated navigation systems will enable roads to be populated by driverless cars, which could change the design and operation of highways entirely.

“Intelligent traffic and control systems will make our roads safer and more sustainable. By communicating with traffic signals, traffic cameras and GPS systems, these solutions will help make our roads a safer place to travel on,” says Tim Gammons, director of Intelligent Transport Systems at Arup.

“Driver stress caused as a result of heavy traffic and delays will be a thing of the past, as drivers will receive customised information from commercial travel services to make their journey as easy and free-flowing as possible.”

The report can be accessed HERE.