Studio Roosegaarde and Heijmans Smart Highway

Road markings that light up after sunset, street lights that actively track your car like an actor on stage, and tarmac that electrically charges your car's battery as it passes above. It’s all here and it could be a reality by next year.

Smart roads have been the preserve of science fiction since the late ‘30s when General Motors presented their 'Futurama' exhibit at the 1939 World's Fair in New York. Since then, for the most part, technological advancements have revolved around the car rather than the roads. But at this year’s Dutch Design Week, prototypes were presented which are slated to be implemented on several roads in Holland from as early as mid-2013. Finally, and not a moment too soon, the road may be catching up with the car…

At the show last month, designer and innovator Daan Roosegaarde and Heijmans Infrastructure were awarded 'Best Future Concept' for the first prototypes of their ‘Smart Highway’. This is a portfolio of five products: Glow-in-the-Dark Road, Dynamic Paint, Interactive Light, Induction Priority Lane and Wind Light. These will increase safety and improve usability, energy wastage and sustainability on the roads of the future. Just as an example, 30% of light coming from streetlights is currently wasted at a cost in excess of £100m a year in the UK alone. Using power from renewable resources and more efficient lighting would mitigate this very quickly.

The five technologies are described briefly below:

Glow-in-the-Dark Road: road markings are all painted using a special photo-luminescent paint. This ‘charges’ during the day and can last for up to 10 hours at night removing the need for additional road lighting.

Dynamic Paint: paint on the road surface which becomes visible in response to different temperatures. For example, blue snowflakes will appear across the roads when the temperature falls to freezing.

Interactive Light: dynamic street lighting which can sense the presence of vehicles and illuminate the road for just the correct length of time as vehicles pass, saving electricity. Watching this from above would appear as a vehicles surrounded by moving pools of light.

Induction Priority Lane: a lane reserved exclusively for electric vehicles. With charging loops buried beneath the road surface, cars passing over them could charge as they drove. Theoretically if all main roads were fitted with this technology it would dramatically reduce the necessary range (and in turn weight) of electric cars, while increasing their economy and allowing them to have an infinite range.

Wind Light: thousands of micro wind turbines along the sides of the road which harness the power of the turbulent air from passing cars to light up. The turbines look a little like illuminated flowers sitting along the side of the road.

Dynamic Paint and Glow-in-the-Dark Road will be the first two technologies to be implemented in Brabant next year and live demonstrations were given at Dutch Design Week. The other three technologies will be in place within five years.

The prototypes look great, not least due to the inspiring computer generated concept images. Rather than being designed functionally these concepts have come very much from an artistic design background and consequently give the road a modern and inspiring makeover. However, in the grand scheme of things some of these ideas will perhaps only be an interim step. Autonomous vehicles are expected to be widely available by the end of the decade and according to the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) could account for up to 75 per cent of vehicles on the road by 2040. Combined with ever-improving in-car information systems, it’s likely that in the future there will be a call for significantly less road furniture and technology rather than more.

Yet it’s hard to deny that a motorway scattered with giant glowing snowflakes is an incredibly cool way of reminding you to pay attention to the road ahead. Time will tell how far this concept goes.

Here's a video of an animated Roosegarde telling his story.

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