The world has been taken over by the digital wave with several industries embracing digital innovations. Therefore, it is imperative for the Indian highways sector also to be at the forefront of this transformation.
‘Smart roads’ or ‘Smart highways’ gaining ground in the developed world essentially use a suite of technologies that are intended to be both interactive and largely self-powering. The concept holds tremendous potential for India considering its road network is the second largest in the world and continues to be the most important means of transport carrying almost 80 per cent of the country’s passenger traffic and around 65 per cent of its freight. This large road asset can be leveraged for a lot more than it currently is, implementing technology innovations that yield significant improvements in the driving experience. We have identified several such innovations that can be applied to create smart highways to help improve and redefine the driving experience across three thematic areas: communication, convenience and safety.
Communication: Imagine if our roads/highways could ‘talk’ to vehicles plying on them! This is not a thing of the future but a reality in the present. Smart-road-to-vehicle communication can help create safer roads, more efficient travel, reduced air pollution and better driving experiences. Cameras and sensors embedded in our roads can detect congestion, traffic blockage or diversions and relay this information in real time back to upstream vehicles through digital signage allowing drivers to vary their speed accordingly or take alternative routes. The autonomous vehicles of tomorrow will require these inputs to chart their driving course in an effective manner and will ensure more road safety in the long run. Road-to-vehicle communication will serve as the foundation for safe, connected, autonomous vehicles of the future, giving vehicles the ability to “talk” to each other, and roadway infrastructure.
Convenience: The idea of smart lighting solutions for roadways powered by either harvesting solar energy or through piezoelectric sensors in the ground both is appealing and scores high on both energy efficiency and utility. Implemented in Japan and Israel, the technology relies on piezoelectric crystals placed below the surface of asphalt used on roadways. These piezoelectric devices, used for harvesting the kinetic energy of roads and walkways from the traffic moving over them, can produce electrical energy that is predictable (based on traffic patterns) and locally storable. The electrical energy harvested is sufficient to power smart lighting poles on highways, freeways and rural roads, and are extremely helpful in foggy or heavy monsoon-prone areas.
The interactive lighting system is another smart solution which uses motion sensor lights that glow bright as a vehicle nears it, illuminating a particular stretch of the road and slowly dims out as the vehicle moves away. It is a splendid solution for less-travelled highways, providing night visibility on demand and proving the best for road safety.
Safety: Safe highways will go a long way in improving throughput of our highways. In a quest to improve safety on highly risky mountain roads and highways in India, ‘SmartLife’ poles were developed. The system uses these poles to communicate with each other and exchange data on incoming traffic just before sharp turns and hairpin bends. These poles gauge the speed of vehicles and alert drivers of approaching traffic by sounding a horn. The first prototype of this system is currently being tested on NH1, the highway connecting Jammu and Srinagar, infamous for being one of the most dangerous roads in the world.
Similarly, smart systems can use digital sensors to acquire data pertaining to landslides, accidents, traffic jams and weather conditions, activating warning systems in time and enabling active LED displays on roads and highways. The Eastern Peripheral Expressway is India’s first smart highway bolstered with highway traffic management systems (HTMS) and video detection systems (VIDS) to relay the information collected to a central server in the control room resulting in real-time incident management. The Incident Management Control Centre is integral in maintaining an overall safe roadway. Running 24/7, it monitors traffic with an array of intelligent transport systems and is also able to successfully deploy ground recovery crew to assist motorists in distress. More such initiatives need to be implemented across all our highways.
The world is slowly but steadily transitioning to a future in which self-driving automobiles will define the traffic landscape. Are our roads and highways equipped for this transition? Moreover with Smart Cities currently dominating discussions on the next generation of urban infrastructure and transportation, Smart Highways/Roads promise to be the third link to the chain in the fight against congestion and carbon emissions, helping to ease the flow of traffic, reduce accidents and in some instances, serve as viable sources of renewable energy in their own right. Smart highways are a crucial link in improving road transportation landscape in the country.