China has committed to testing an “intelligent highway” that could revolutionise the global transport industry.
The highway will embed solar panels, mapping sensors and electric-battery re-chargers underneath transparent concrete, used to build a 1,080-meter-long stretch of road in the eastern city of Jinan.
The road has three vertical layers, with the shell of transparent material allowing sunlight to reach the solar cells underneath. The top layer contains space to thread recharging wires and sensors that monitor temperature, traffic flow and weight load.
The solar panels, thinner than a 1-yuan coin standing on its side, are spread across two lanes and will feel like driving on regular road.
According to Zhou Yong, Qilu Transportation Development Group Co. general manager, the test road is currently too short to deliver wireless recharging at the moment.
“From the angle of the technology itself, charging is not a problem,” Zhou said. “The vehicles that can be charged wirelessly aren’t used on roads yet.”
Qilu Transportation will be building and testing the road however, they have not provided a deadline for sensor installation to send data and power to EV batteries.
Intelligent highways are the future
Currently about 45,000 vehicles drive this section every day, and the solar panels inside generate enough electricity to power highway lights and 800 homes, according to Qilu Transportation Development Group Co.
The government estimates 10% of cars will be self-driving by 2030 and according to Qilu Transportantion, it’s the right time to build supporting infrastructure that will deliver better traffic updates and on-the-go recharging of electric-vehicle batteries.
The road testing initiative forms part of the “Made in China 2025” plan to help the nation become an advanced manufacturing power within the new-energy vehicles, information technology and robotics fields.
The stretch of road in Jinan cost about 7,000 yuan per square meter to build, Zhou said, a total cost about 41 million yuan ($6.5 million). The threshold for mass adoption of the technology is about 3,000 yuan per square meter.
Initial costs are high due to in-house research-and-development at Qilu’s own laboratories, however costs should decrease as the components are mass-produced.
“The solar expressway does have market opportunities,” said Xu Yingbo, an analyst with Citic Securities in Beijing. “The key things that need to be addressed are costs and reliability, as well as how quickly it can have the compatible system in place.”
China accounts for half of all EV sales worldwide, surpassing the US in 2015 to become the world’s biggest market for electric cars. The government has set a sales target of 7 million NEVs by 2020.
“The future of transport is coming to us much faster than we expected,” Zhou said. “We need to make sure that roads are evolved to match the development of autonomous-driving vehicles.”