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From self-healing asphalt to electrified roads, technology is steering the future of driving along some exciting new paths!

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Technology infuses nearly everything these days.  We have smart refrigerators, smart watches, smart glasses, it might not seem like we need any more smart stuff, but some of these technologies can be really useful and that's especially true when it comes to smart roads.  Really.  There's a traffic jam of ideas in the pipeline to make infrastructure more intelligent and to help roads do everything from repair themselves to save lives.

Here are three emerging technologies that give new meaning to the term 'street smart'.  First, some companies are working on roads that can prevent accidents and help drivers who have been in a crash.  There are a few ways to do this and some of them are being tested in Colorado.  One strategy is being tested by a company called Integrated Roadways.  In 2018, they announced that Colorado's Department of Transportation had granted them a contract to install smart pavement on a roughly 1km stretch of Highway 285.  

Smart pavement is a system of concrete slabs embedded with digital technology and fiber optic mesh.  These fibers detect the position, speed, and weight of vehicles, and once it's installed, a computer communicating with the highway will be able to calculate if a car crashed, skidded off the road, or just pulled aside to take a photo of the landscape.  If there's been an accident or if a car veered off the highway, routers inside the road will be able to alert emergency services to rush to the scene.

Integrated Roadways has already piloted this pavement on a section of road in Denver, and it's currently collecting information on about 7,500 vehicles per day, so if their new, roughly 1km test goes well, this kind of technology could start popping up all over the place.  It is worth noting, though, that smart pavement isn't the only way to make a safer road.  

There's also a system called V2X, which is short for "Vehicle to everything".  It's a short-range wireless technology that allows vehicles to communicate with each other and with objects like stoplights and guard rails.  If the network of objects senses something like a bunch of vehicles decelerating, it can send an audio or visual message to display screens on nearby cars, warning drivers to proceed with caution. 

For the system to be effective, both the objects and the vehicles need to have V2X capability, but some new cars already have this installed and other brands plan to add it to their future models.  Colorado is also testing out this system and their first stretch of road with this tech is expected to be completed in 2021.  According to one consulting firm working with the state's Department of Transportation, this tech could make a big impact, too.  They say that if it were implemented throughout Colorado, it could lead to more than 85,000 fewer car accidents and 300 fewer deaths over 20 years.

Now, traffic is bad, but potholes can be a real pain, too.  They're not fun to drive over, and the really bad ones can even damage vehicles, so in 2010, scientists in the Netherlands tested a potential solution.  Build roads that can almost fix themselves.  To do this, they started with a type of pervious asphalt commonly used in the Netherlands which is made of stones held together with as little bitumen as possible.  Bitumen is a sticky black binder.  This kind of asphalt is great for various reasons, but by itself, it still gets cracks and potholes.  They happen when the bitumen shrinks and detaches from the stones it's holding on to.  So next, the researchers mixed in tiny pieces of steel wool, the kind you might use to scour burned hamburger off your pans.  They took this mixture and used it to pave a section of road.  Then, in 2014, after letting it sit for a while, they drove an induction machine over it.  The machine created an oscillating magnetic field which induced an electric current in the conductive steel wool.  The electricity heated the steel and melted the bitumen between the stones and that repaired the cracks that might have eventually caused potholes.  

The scientists say that running the induction machine over steel-filled asphalt every four years can double the lifespan of the road, taking it from 8 to 10 to 16 to 20.  The Netherlands has already used this technology on a dozen other roads, too, and according to one of the scientists, that's not all this tech can do. 

It may also be possible to send energy through the steel in the pavement so electric vehicles could charge while at a stoplight.  That technology is in the early stages, but car-charging roads are already rolling out elsewhere.  In 2018, the world's first electrified road for charging cars debuted in Sweden, and the way it works is pretty straightforward.  For this road, engineers laid down about 2km of track in the center of the road similar to the kind you see on light rail.  When you drive your electric vehicle on it, an arm attached to the bottom of the vehicle reaches down and connects to the track.  Then, as you drive, the road charges your battery.  If you switch lanes, the arm will disconnect, and if you stop, the current will, too.  This system is set up so that the electricity itself is on a separate rail about 5cm below the surface and so that it only flows when a car is attached to that section of the road.  That way, people can cross the street without getting electrocuted, which is always nice.

Still, even if the whole area flooded with water or something, the organization behind the project says the current isn't enough to hurt pedestrians.  Now, Sweden is thinking of applying this idea to 20,000 kilometers of highways throughout the country, but again, this method isn't the only way to do this. 

Other companies are testing wireless charging roads.  For example, an Israeli company called ElectReon has successfully created a driving track studded with copper coils that are connected to the electrical grid.  When an electric vehicle outfitted with copper plates passes over them, the interaction between the two electromagnetic fields generates power to charge the vehicle.  In 2019, the company announced it would install this technology on a public road in Sweden, and France and the UK and South Korea are also testing similar tech.

One of the biggest concerns people have about electric vehicles is that there aren't enough places to charge their batteries, but if the roads themselves charged cars, that barrier would basically disappear.  So while smart roads may seem unnecessary at first, they could eventually transform the way we drive.  They could potentially reduce or eliminate the need for gasoline powered cars and gas stations, they could reduce the need for frequent road repairs, and they could even save our lives.

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