Innovation in transportation typically happens at the level of the vehicle. The past decade has seen the growth of hybrids, electrics, and velomobiles. Every new year brings new car models, and busses, trains, and subways continue to get nicer and "smarter" (with real-time transit information, for example).
So why does the other side of the transportation equation—the roads we drive on—seem to stay more or less frozen in time?
In the Netherlands, a design studio has made it its mission to make transportation safer and more environmentally friendly by redesigning not the car, but the roads themselves, as "smart highways," complete with glow-in-the-dark markings, temperature-responsive paint that lights up as ice crystals when temperatures dip below freezing, interactive lighting that illuminates only when cars pass, and a lane equipped with induction coils to recharge electric cars as they drive by.
"Sometimes [the change] is about safety and making energy generating landscapes and sometimes it’s about just making really cool, poetic, Matrix-like landscapes," explains Daan Roosegaarde, whose Studio Roosegaarde is behind the smart highway project.
Like any technology, piloting the smart highways won’t be cheap. Roosegaarde didn’t say exactly how much more it would cost, but he points out it’ll be "less expensive than building a new planet Earth because we ran out of resources." But the timing is right to rethink roads. With budget crises across Europe, Roosegard says they’re turning off streetlights at night to save money in France, The United Kingdom, and the Netherlands, resulting in a rise of car accident fatalities.
The studio is piloting the project with engineering firm Heijmans on a 100-to-150-meter-stretch of highway to be finished by summer. Not all the exotic features will be included in the first stretch. (Roosegaarde says he expects they’ll include the glowing lights.)
The project has gotten off the ground surprisingly quickly for infrastructure work, going from the beginnings of the design process to completion in about a year, if finished on time. Roosegaarde partially credits a desire among European politicians to embrace innovation. A local politician in the area of Brabant where the pilot will be saw the smart highway on the news, called Roosegaarde "and said, 'we want it. Come by now.'" The project was also sped along by the eagerness of Heijmans, one of Europe’s biggest road manufacturers, to collaborate.
Roosegaarde describes himself as "sort of a hippy with a business plan. On one hand, I have an ideology, I want to make [the world] more innovative, more poetic in a way. But on the other, I want to work together with big brands with big companies to make it happen.
He adds, "I prefer to be on this asphalt road in Brabant, to being in a big museum somewhere in Europe."