Current Issue
This Month's Print Issue

Follow Fast Company

We’ll come to you.

4 minute read

Futurist Forum

Solar Roads, Charging Roads, And The Future Of Transportation

Everyone might want super fast trains or driverless cars, but the real innovations in transportation are going to involve infrastructure. Meet the road of the future.

This week the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge was lit in the greatest LED art display ever. I was dazzled, but a little side-note in the news story caught my attention. The Bay Bridge opened in 1936, after construction began in 1933. The grandness of this bridge was quickly eclipsed, however, when the more picturesque Golden Gate Bridge opened in 1937. Its construction too had begun in 1933.

I had to look at those construction dates once more. This was the depth of the Great Depression. Today, in our own economic doldrums, it is hard to conceive of such projects. I begin with these examples because the first reaction to what I am about to tell you about future transportation infrastructure is very likely to be, "Nope, we can’t afford that, never gonna happen." Just keep in mind an earlier generation of leaders and citizens looked hardship in the eye and proceeded to build a new future. I think it is past time to do that again.

When we contemplate the future of transportation we think of bullet trains, electric autonomous cars, sub-orbital planes and the like. We even wonder—still—when the flying car will land in reality. But we don’t think much about the infrastructure on which those vehicles depend. Some very enterprising and creative engineers do, however. Here are two ideas for re-inventing the road that I think could, literally, change everything about future transportation, if we care to be as bold as our ancestors in the 1930s.

First up is Solar Roadways. What is a road? A strip of asphalt, concrete, dirt, or cobblestone on which wheeled vehicles roll. Road materials have advanced since Roman days, but not all that much, really. It is still just a hard surface, designed to support the weight of vehicles and keep us out of the mud. Twenty four hours a day, roads, parking lots, and sidewalks just sit there, and in the day time they mostly just sit there collecting heat and light but not doing anything with it.

Imagine, as Solar Roadways has, that you could replace the concrete or asphalt with solar cells beneath a layer of glass. Operating at 15% efficiency the U.S. road system would provide more than four times our current electricity needs, or about as much electricity as the whole world uses. It’s a lot of potential power.

It turns out it is not that hard to take "off the shelf" material and build a layer of solar cells between sealed layers of glass, and construct a roadway surface of the resulting panels. The primary complication is manufacturing glass that is strong enough for an 18-wheeler to drive on, that is clear enough to allow sunlight in but opaque enough not to emit too much glare, with sufficient traction and durable enough to last for years. The glass design challenge is one that Solar Roadways is working on, among others, and one they plan to test with their first road panels installed in a parking lot in the spring of 2013.

Solar Roadways and its founders, Scott and Julie Brusaw, have made a big splash on the Web, at Tedx, and YouTube, especially through the video below (with 1.5 million views) introducing their original work. In addition to solar cells in the glass sandwich they are installing led lights that can be programmed to spell out messages and to respond to the environment, signaling that cars should stop for pedestrians, for example.

The second infrastructure re-invention company is Wave, which stands for Wireless Advanced Vehicle Electrification. Its goal is to enable electric buses to become more cost effective than diesel or natural gas buses, and without the need for being connected to overhead wires. In order to run continuously on rechargeable batteries, a bus has to carry a lot of them, since recharging happens only at the base station. This makes the bus inefficient, heavy, and costly.

However, the people at Wave knew that electricity can be transmitted wirelessly though magnetic induction. The question is how to build magnetic induction equipment into the infrastructure. Their simple solution is genius. Install a wave induction receiving unit on the bottom of the bus, and then at various bus stops install a magnetic induction power transfer system in the road. When the bus stops to pick up passengers, the magnetic induction unit wirelessly sends a charge to the batteries, and this frequent re-charging enables to bus to run all day, until it returns to base for a full re-charge overnight. Fewer batteries, less weight, more economical.

All that is needed at the bus stop is a way to connect the magnetic induction system to a power source. Solar Roadways might just have a built in solution to that! Wave notes on their website that technical hurdles remain to reach ultimate efficiencies but they are installing magnetic induction bus systems at Utah State University, for the Monterey Trolley in California, University of Utah, and in partnership with Advanced Energy Solution in Prague, Czech Republic.

Imagine roads in 2025 and beyond. Made of glass, generating electricity, with magnetic induction built in where appropriate. Is that really more far-fetched than building massive bridges in the 1930s?