SUSTAINABLE HIGHWAYS: New technologies will help us Build Healthier Societies in 7 Ways

August 24, 2021 |

Wonder of an earlier age, the modern limited-access highway is a commonplace of our times that we almost never give a thought to it — it’s just there, seems eternal and never changes, like granite formations or the fortunes of the Seattle Mariners.

Change is coming, and perhaps soon. Because the most important fact of the highway system is not the roadbed upon which our cars and trucks travel, though that is a part of it — it is the right-of-way across vast stretches of country — fertile ground for all kinds of infrastructure from pipelines carrying liquids for manufacturing and heat generation, electricity for power, or data for information systems.

Change represents opportunity. Here are 7 Transformations of the Highway system worth tracking now.

1. New roadtop materials. Paving materials are heading in a sustainable direction. Bitumen (asphalt) can now be made using biobased technology and biomass resources — typically, pyrolysis is used. That’s a same-as material, so the road performance will not change, but the lifecycle emissions will go way down by switching away from petroleum. Most schemes are testing blends of bio-based bitumen for now, as we reported here. Partly for cost reasons, partly because of availability of alternatives, partly from a go-slow, get-it-right perspective from highway authorities. 

2. Paint for the road. And, there’s biobased paints to consider — binders, solvents and resins can be made biobased as well for comparable road performance and much better lifecycle numbers. Lot of paint on a modern highway when you add up all the striping and the miles.

3. New roadbed materials. Not only is there material on the top, there’s the material on the bottom, the roadbed. Think crushed limestone, which is a terrific carbon sequestration material, as we observed here. Take calcium oxide, add CO2, you’ve got limestone. As Madison.com observed here: “Limestone is abundant in Wisconsin, and it’s the material of choice for the surface of gravel roads, and the base for roads paved with asphalt or concrete.”

And wrquarries adds: Limestone aggregates and screenings are vital for the production of concrete bridge piers and spans (above), road base materials, asphalt pavement, concrete blocks, and tilt-wall construction.

4. Driverless cars and road efficiency. Says a group of Cambridge University researchers: “Driverless cars working together can speed up traffic by 35 percent.” The researchers noted that “when the cars were communicating with each other and driving cooperatively, as soon as one car stopped in the inner lane, it sent a signal to all the other cars. Cars in the outer lane that were in immediate proximity of the stopped car slowed down slightly so that cars in the inner lane were able to quickly pass the stopped car without having to stop or slow down significantly.”

What’s the impact? Not just better drive times, and less energy expended on idling or sub-optimal driving patters (such as brake-accelerate-brake patterns), you can use fewer lanes. A three lane system uses two lanes if the cars are traveling 35 percent faster, with no increase in overall traffic — in fact, you might find that, by bunching cars together much more efficiently, we could use just one lane to move traffic. That’s especially important if we consider having a dedicated lane just for automated vehicles, to re-assure traditional drivers nervous about tailgating by driverless cars and trucks.

What’s the benefit of fewer lanes? For one, less need for lane expansions as population grows. And, opening up an extra lane each way adds the opportunity for a high-speed mass transit corridor.

5. Pipelines. Over time, more and more data, electrons and liquids are going to be transported down highway right-of-ways. Think internet backbone, power transmission, carbon dioxide, and liquid organic broths (made from fermentation) that ultimately will be distilled into the resins, binders, additives, plastics that society needs. Possibly hydrogen carriers like DME or biogas (RNG), right down the center of the highway, possibly using all that space freed up by driverless cars and trucks.

6. Energy crops replacing roadside grass for cover, beauty and as a resource. Says here that highway transportation systems are investigating the planting of higher-value crops by roadsides to replace the grasses used for cover. Why not turn a cost center into a revenue center?

7. Tunnels beneath the road. More of a long-term prospect and depends on the local geology, but we sure like the prospect of moving all truck-based material transport to a below-ground system. You don’t see trucks or infrastructure at Walt Disney World because the people move around above a system of tubes and tunnels used to move cast, food & beverage, garbage, water and everything else around the park, under the park. 

The Bottom Line

What’s better than ‘Build Back Better’? Build once, use thirty ways. Top and bottom, we can expect the highway of the future is going to serve society way better than today. There’ll be less traffic on the surface to distract or hassle, and a diverse set of assets used to move resources around. It’s a little like the old Wonder Bread ads of days gone by that promised “Wonder Bread builds strong bodies 8 ways”. The bread was fortified, at the end of the day — and that’s what highways will be, fortified and made more useful from coast to coast.

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