As its latest transport innovation, China has actually built an intelligent highway that could completely change the road transport industry as we know it.
In the eastern Chinese city of Jinan, a portion of a highway that is 1,080 meters long now includes solar panels, chargers for electric batteries and even sensors for mapping. Each day, almost fifty thousand cars and trucks drive over this road, and Qilu Transportation Development Group Co., who built the road, says that the solar panels with it create enough energy for the highway’s lights, as well as almost a thousand homes.
That, in itself, is impressive. And yet, Qilu Transportation is not stopping there. They plan to turn the road into a smart road, an intelligent highway. Since one out of every ten cars is expected to be self-driving by 2030, the company will take advantage of this for supplying more accurate mapping services and traffic news as well as charging electric vehicles while they are being driven on the smart roads, because of the technology embedded in them.
How’s that for a truly intelligent highway?
This push in technological innovations is completely in line with China’s President Xi Jinping’s “Made in China 2025” thrust that aims to develop the country into a superior manufacturing power, and not just a nation that exports clothing, toys or shoes. Instead, the President is urging the country to excel in the fields of robotics, information technology, and transport vehicles that use new sources of energy.
Additionally, China has also expressed its desire to become the global artificial intelligence (AI) hub by 2030.
A big part of this thrust depends on China developing its intelligent transport system, which focuses on self-driving cars and smart roads. According to Yuan Peng, the deputy head of the transportation ministry’s science and technology department, the government will help make intelligent roads for the deluge of smart cars coming in the near future.
The first project is the aforementioned highway in Jinan, where Sinotruk, or China National Heavy Duty Truck Group, and Zhejiang Geely Holding Group, which makes Geely cars, are located. Seven million people live in Jinan.
There are three layers to each intelligent road. The first layer is transparent, which causes sunlight to reach solar cells in the road. The first layer also has a gap for threading wires for recharging batteries, as well as sensors for keeping track of traffic, weight load and temperature.
Driving across the solar panels does not feel any different from driving on regular roads. The current stretch of road is not long enough for wireless charging quite yet, although the technology to make this possible has already been developed by Qilu Transportation.
China is not the only country on the globe to have developed smart roads. In Normandy, France, two years ago, a one-kilometer road was built by Bouygues SA with solar panels embedded, and this has since grown to twenty other locations. Called Wattway roads, their main purpose is to generate electricity via solar power, and they have yet to announce plans to include charging electric vehicles on their roads.
China, on the other hand, predicts that more than 30 million vehicles with different smart features will be found in its roads by 2025, hence the need for technology in other aspects to keep up. This has not been inexpensive, and the price tag of $6.5 million dollars on the stretch of intelligent highway in Jinan proves this. However, this is only expected to be costly at the beginning, and as items for the road are mass produced, the cost is expected to go down.
Scientists actually began research on the intelligent highway a decade ago. The road, which opened in December 2017, took 55 days to build. The solar panels on the road help keep ice and snow off of it during poor weather.
The scientists who worked on the road want it to work like human beings in the future, anticipating what is necessary based on current data and adjusting accordingly.
China is now the number one market for electric vehicles, with half of the world’s purchases going to China alone. More than one million new-energy cars, including hybrid, battery powered and fuel-cell cars will be bought in China in 2018.
The government expects the Chinese to buy 7 milllion new energy vehicles by 2020.
Zhou Yong, Qilu Transportation’s general manager says, “The future of transportation is coming to us much faster than we expected. We need to make sure that roads are evolved to match the development of autonomous-driving vehicles.”