Five innovations that could revolutionise British highways

It is an interesting time to be in the highways industry. The ‘Infrastructure Bill’ will not only free the Highways Agency from its red tape but also bring billions of pounds of much needed investment to roads. The Queen boasted about the bill in June: “My government will introduce a bill to bolster investment in infrastructure and reform planning law to improve economic competitiveness.”
    
This important change for the sector paves the way for a brand new look at roads, a new perspective on decadent practise and new ways to tackle old problems. In a word, innovation. That is what will make the next ten years in the highways industry so exciting. It will bring new, exciting technology that the world has never seen before and there are thousands of new innovations in their seedling stages of development. Here are five of the most incredible innovations to hit highways over the next decade.

Solar Roads
Plucked straight out of a sci-fi film, solar roads are like the Swiss army knife of road technology for every gadget geek. Packed into each seven inch hexagonal slab of blue and green recycled glass are solar panels that absorb the... ahem, UK sun. That green energy powers the internal technology which comes in many forms ranging from LED road markings to heaters for stubborn snow and pressure sensors.
    
‘Glass?,’ I hear you shout. ‘Ridiculous,’ I hear you conclude. However, this new tempered glass has been tested for traction, impact resistance and sheer weight in civil engineering laboratories across the US and exceeded all requirements. What this innovation gives is impressive and what it takes away is even more incredible. The number one is asphalt and the ever‑ensuing game of cat and mouse road repair. A County Council fills in a pothole for £75 and a few years later it is causing hot coffee to spill on your lap again. So, if by some chance one of the slabs breaks or malfunctions, just pop off that panel and replace it with a new one.
    
Think it will never happen? In the ‘Mayor of London’s London Infrastructure Plan 2050 – A Consultation’ released in August, it states: “One example of a radical change that one day may be considered ordinary is the solar digital road.” If successful, this technology could do away with the need for solar farms, transform roads into digital as well as physical arteries and replace all manner of other highway accoutrements, including road markings, traffic lights, gritting and snow ploughs.

Car Convoys
Our highways will soon be taken up by vehicle convoys that are self-driving, with cutting edge technology that will allow the user to “sit back and enjoy a relaxed lunch.” Yes – the future for motorists is certainly relaxed. It may not be long until steam rooms and jacuzzi’s are installed in the back of lorry cabs.

For the rest of the Highways sector and motorists alike, many worries regarding the new ‘road trains’ will spring to mind. It is one thing if a road worker is killed due to human error, quite another if it was a robot.
    
Volvo is heading this kind of driving revolution with a ‘follow the leader’ type of technology that will allow multiple HGVs and cars to be driving in tandem. The innovation works by having a front driver in control of their own car, allowing other vehicles to latch on and join the conga line. A series of laser sensors and infrared cameras will be the hardware responsible for making all this possible.
    
Volvo said in a statement: “The project is addressing the three cornerstone transportation issues of environment, safety and congestion, while at the same time encouraging driver acceptance through the prospect of increased driver comfort.”
    
Driverless convoys are coming sooner than you may think. The car giant has already successfully completed tests during its ‘Safe Road Trains for the Environment (SARTRE) programme’ in 2012. Tests on UK roads will take place as early as 2015, but the Department of Transport appeared interested but cautious in a later statement: “No decision has been reached on a trial using this new technology. However, road safety remains of paramount importance and will not be compromised.”

Flame Patching
Enter the ‘Flaming Dragon’, a multi-ton flame producing machine which scorches the ground into liquid tarmac. The behemoth then spews its own material into the mix to produce a new surface layer for cars to drive on. The dragon was first released onto the M8 in May after completing major resurfacing work on the Whitecart Viaduct. The machine doesn’t stand idle long – during the project, it tore through 800 metres of tarmac every night for a week, creating a new gateway for the summer’s Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games.
    
Philippa Ayton, Scotland TranServ’s Bridges Manager said: “This is an exciting machine. Once the road has been planed, the Flaming Dragon heats the remaining surface to extreme temperatures, melting what’s left before blending it with fresh material to construct a new top layer.”
    
Even infrastructure company Skanska has invested in its own behemoth, not very originally named ‘The Dragon’. This ‘Dragon’, however, works very differently, using an extended nozzle to blow clean the area and then hose out hot bituminous emulsion to the surface in need of repair. This creature does breathe fire too, but instead to melt any stubborn ground snow or ice blocking the way of the repair.

Glow In The Dark Roads
“One day I was sitting in my car in the Netherlands, and I was amazed by these roads we spend millions on, but no one seems to care what they look like and how they behave. I started imagining this ‘Route 66’ of the future where technology jumps out of the computer screen and becomes part of us.”

This is the moment of inspiration when Dutch inventor Daan Roosegaarde was struck by the idea of photo luminescent ‘glow in the dark roads’. Not unlike solar roads, ‘glow in the dark roads’ harness energy from the sun, but instead exude the energy as light at night time. “It looks like you are driving through a fairy-tale,” said one Netherlands newspaper.

The ‘Tron’-themed innovation brings illumination to otherwise turned-off street lights, and produces a ‘green’ solution to many safety problems.
    
The project even gathered enough traction that the Highways Agency took notice; however, when asked whether they would trial the technology, they replied: “luminescent road paint would be unsuitable for use in this country,” yet stating they would observe this experiment with interest. Perhaps when the Agency becomes a government-owned company, a fresh perspective may be ignited.

Intellicone
Road workers are the people that make our commute, our travel to holiday destinations or our trip to a loved one possible. They slog through the night repairing roads, implementing new safety features or executing upgrades, so that we can get to our destination safely. Road workers are perhaps the most unsung heroes of the highways industry, and yet every day when they wake up they face more danger than most other employment sectors. With cars bellowing by at anything from 20mph to 130mph, all it takes is one second of human error and their life is over. Imagine sitting behind your desk at your office and a car coming crashing through the wall, impaling your body.
    
The state of the art cone attachment uses pairing technology with other cones to send an audio and visual alarm to road workers when a stray car enters the work zone, giving workers the opportunity to take cover or dodge out of control vehicles.
    
In the past four years, nine workers have died and hundreds other injured on motorways and ‘A’ roads. This technology sets out on the noble cause to decrease harm to a predominantly young work force. And the workers are crying out for protection; Wayne Leek, a road worker for 15 years, said “that extra couple of seconds can give you a lot more chance to move out of the way, nearer to the verge; that extra couple of seconds can save your life.”
    
There it is: five of the most interesting innovations that will hit the highways industry over the next decade. Time will tell which of these stands to make the greatest impact.

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