Sprawled across a bike path in Nuenen, Netherlands, 50 000 solar-powered stones are embedded on the pavement to glow in the dark and resemble Vincent van Gogh's famous "The Starry Night". It was a commemoration of the 125th anniversary of the painter's death: a techno-poetry that Dutch artist and urban architect Daan Roosegaarde describes as "technical combined with experience", a fusion of art and purpose.
But more than honouring one of the most famous artists and paintings in history, Roosegaarde's genius, unconventional, and sustainable idea of lighting up our pavements is a statement on the transformation of our roads for the future, or the lack thereof.
"Why do we put so much focus on vehicles, innovation and mobility but neglect the surfaces they drive on?" he asks. "Infrastructure defines our cities and landscapes way more than the cars." It seems that in our journey to the autonomous future, we have forgotten our roads, literally.
But it's inevitable, as the Fourth Industrial Revolution ushers extraordinary technologies, that the way we conceptualise and build our roadways will be utterly configured.
What's the use of having smart cars if our roads are dumb? And with opportunities for innovative reinvention as never before, is it quite possible that we are coming to the end of roads as we know them?
What our roads will be made of…
Realities such as globalisation and urban overpopulation are demanding we replace our traditional materials and techniques with more sustainable solutions, as well as the fossil fuel guzzlers that wear out its pavement.
New construction materials are offering fascinating alternatives with inbuilt renewability capabilities. Dr Rajagopalan Vasudevan, dean and professor of chemistry at India's Thiagarajar College of Engineering, found that plastic, when molten and mixed with a stone and bitumen mix, has been proven to be an excellent binder and creates a stronger and longer-lasting road. An estimated 100 000 km of roads in India are actually made up of plastic, inspiring companies like MacRebur Plastic Roads Company to use it as well to build roads in the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.
Similarly, the use of fly ash and slags from mineral refineries in concrete construction has proven beneficial in reducing carbon emissions and for the disposal and neutralising of waste. And innovations like self-healing concrete are extending the lifespan of old concrete, with self-activating limestone-producing bacteria that congeal in pavement cracks as they form.
Modern pavement engineers are constantly pushing the boundaries of form and function, seeking more effective ways to close the loop on conventional construction outputs. Just last year, architects Carlo Ratti Associati (CRA) and Sidewalk Labs (owned by Google's Alphabet) teamed up and launched a prototype of Dynamic Street, a series of "hexagonal modular pavers which can be picked up and replaced within hours or even minutes", and enable us to change the function of the road with much lesser disruptions to the street.
"The project explores the different patterns that can be created on the hexagonal grid, as well as the integration of lights into individual pavers. Each paver can also potentially host a plug and play element – that is, vertical structures such as poles, bollards or even basketball hoops," according to CRA. Just imagine how that would transform the construction and function of our roads.
'Freaking' solar coup
Solar roads may just be the solar industry's prized jewel, thanks to their large exposed surfacing that can harness solar energy to illuminate road markings and generate electricity.
As Roosegaarde puts it: "Energy is everywhere. We just need to know how to harvest it." While there have been criticisms on its efficiency and cost-effectiveness compared with rooftop solar panels, several projects around the world continue to work on developing the technology and explore how roads can play a greater role in generating energy.
In the Netherlands, the N329 – Road of the Future has replaced streetlamps with glow-in-the-dark lines on the pavement made of photoluminescent paint, designed for recharging by sunlight before glowing at night for up to 10 hours. North Holland's Dutch SolaRoad project created a 100 m cycleway pilot project that generated enough electricity to power one household for a year.
And most notable is China's latest 1000 m-long smart road. Paved with solar panels, mapping sensors and electric-battery rechargers, the pilot project aims to be the first stage of 'intelligent highway' design that weaves the Autonomous Vehicle (AV) revolution into one digital and unique experience.
'Smartening' our roads
Coupled with the current wave of innovation to design for sustainability, there is an equal imperative to see our new and old infrastructure becoming smarter.
As autonomous vehicles increasingly dominate our streets and highways, our roads need to act as an intuitive and technologically integrated system that can host these new transport innovations. In the future, roads will no longer be seen simply as empty conduits to move vehicles from one place to another, but environmentally regenerative, digitally responsive networks.
Magnetisable concrete, for example, is the latest invention that could potentially promise to revolutionise the Electric Vehicle (EV) industry. By embedding a highly controllable and resident coiled technology into a designated lane, EVs can charge up their vehicles on the go. The result is a streamlined highway, void of charging stations and an unbeatable value for money EV industry.
A new way is needed
Naturally, the reconstruction and retrofitting of our roadways will demand a new eye when it comes to urban planning, as well as a new perspective when it comes to the nature of our public private partnerships. And, while all developments to transform our roads to become smart are still in the works: All sectors have to collectively start thinking 'smart' now before it's too late.
In fact, Singapore's Smart Mobility 2030 is already consolidating perspectives and inputs from the Land Transport Authority (LTA) and the industry on how to develop a comprehensive and sustainable Intelligent Transport System (ITS) ecosystem in the country. It is also conducting research and development of AV technology in preparation for the future deployments of AVs in Singapore.
It makes sense. The AV revolution will require third-party involvement when it comes to planning, technology consulting, designing and other non-traditional services that accompany smart road development to make this utopian idea a reality.
"Mobility is a fundamental right. It underpins all aspects of societal development allowing everyone, from individuals up to whole nations, to develop and prosper. ITS has already demonstrated (that it is) an essential tool for improving mobility and quality of life. The challenge now is to start using it to its full potential, to maximise the benefits that ITS can bring to society," says Olga Landolfi, Telematica Trasporti e Sicurezza (TTS) Italia Secretary General in the International Road Federation Vienna Manifesto on ITS.
In spite of all that they promise regarding road safety, ecological efficiency and connectivity, smart roads still have a long way to go in the public and private eye. Greater education, research and investment models are needed to expedite their roll out and pave the way for AV innovation.
It's not a question of which comes first, the road or the cars? If we want to make the dream of autonomous vehicles a reality, we have to remember the path we are travelling on.