A Glimpse of the Cars and Roads of Tomorrow

What’s the fastest road to the smart city? We charge up an electric vehicle for a ride into the future

During the coned-in, rained-on, clogged-up rush hour, it’s hard to think of driving a car as anything but an out-of-date, rather stupid activity. But across Europe, Asia and the US, you may have glanced up to see that alongside the usual flashing speed restrictions and roadworks warnings, are banners announcing “smart highways”. The future, it’s promised, will be smoother and safer as mobile technologies, speed limits and digital signage work in harmony to ease congestion.

In our metropolises, the vision is grander still. The so-called “smart city” will connect consumers with data to optimise urban life. Civic leaders put a humanising slant on this, not least to ease public fears about being controlled and watched. Some governments are investing heavily. India, in 2016, created a $14bn “100 Smart Cities Mission" fund to make cities “sustainable and citizen friendly”.

The electric vehicle (EV) is central to these ideas. Cleaner and quieter than petrol and diesel-driven vehicles, EVs meet the increasingly urgent calls to make cities more breathable. The UN recognises clean air as a human right, but its most recent report, Measuring Progress, stated that indoor and outdoor air pollution caused an estimated 7 million deaths globally in 2016. 

“We need to bring together citizens, national and local governments, key ministries, the private sector, finance, and academia, and create new partnerships,” says the UN’s transport expert Rob de Jong. 

“The air connects all of us and touches everything. The time to act is now!”

EVs need to be connected to the web for route planning and to manage recharging. As 5G is rolled out, fast, reliable connection between car, web and a driver’s mobile device will allow close remote monitoring of battery level. 

The air connects all of us and touches everything. The time to act is now!

While on the road, a link to infrastructure and traffic monitoring will help driver and transport authorities alike. Robust connections should put an end to arriving at a charging station to find it occupied.

As David Greenwood, professor in Advanced Propulsion Systems at Warwick University’s International Automotive Research Centre, puts it, “Zero emissions for vehicles close to schools and other public places should improve local air quality, and in particular emissions associated with stop-start traffic will be much better – but you would always prefer smooth flowing traffic for reduced energy consumption.”

Moreover, 5G opens up the Internet of Things – the much-hyped network that will link-up white goods, utilities, security and other aspects of daily life. A car approaching home at peak time could advise the house that it has spare energy available to charge a second car, or power a lawnmower.

With such considerations in mind, countries have established targets for EV sales. Norway has an ambitious goal of selling only zero-emission cars from 2025. The Chinese government aims for 20 percent of all sales to be EVs by 2025.

Meanwhile, smart roads are surfacing where you’d least expect them. The Ray, an 18-mile stretch of highway in Georgia, USA, was inaugurated in 2014. Featuring solar paving, solar panels linked to charging stations and roll-over tyre pressure monitors it’s a pioneering example of how future roads might look. 

The Ray’s engineers are already looking at how to embed wireless charging in dedicated lanes, as well as solar-powered studs to improve on cats’ eyes.

EV’s are only part of any green-thinking solution “We need three things to happen,” says de Jong. “We need to avoid the need for transport through better city design where kids can walk to school and shops are close to residential areas; we need to shift to more efficient modes of transport, like public transport and walking and cycling; and we need to improve transport, through cleaner vehicles.”

There’s some way to go. For every 43 electric vehicles currently travelling on UK roads, there’s only one charging point. This gap is set to widen, with a predicted 83 percent shortfall in the required number of charging points for EVs by 2020. EV technology suited to heavier vehicles – especially 40-ton-plus trucks – is lagging some way behind fast-improving car batteries and charging systems.

EV is, in any case, only a step towards AV (autonomous vehicles). The latter would alter our roads and cities beyond recognition. Inner-city car parks could become redundant. Speed limits could be done away with. Cars could hook up and charge each other like military fighter planes. Sharing could become the norm. Tech optimists speak openly about a zero-carbon, zero-crash, zero-death target for the near future.

 It’s likely that the smartest cities will need to be developed from scratch

The EV-AV relationship, likely to dominate the next decade-plus of transport planning, could open up all manner of synergies. It’s no accident that the rising force in motor racing, Formula E, has as its principal sponsor Swiss-Swedish firm ABB, a major player in power grids, industrial automation and robotics. But while AV looks like a natural fit for highways, it’s hard to imagine full automation in medieval city centres or curving rural lanes. It’s likely that the smartest cities will need to be developed from scratch. In that case, why even think of transport in terms of private cars? Or, will “traditional” EVs become the standard for non-urban dwellers?

Everything might change; some things might not change. Invited to visualise a utopian city circa 2050, Professor Greenwood captures the need for idealism – and a little irony: “This would be a city where energy consumption from low-level buildings is near zero due to insulation, use of heat pumps and local energy storage, combined with solar and wind power. Travel within the city would be by smart electric pod – you don't have to order it – it already knows where you need to go to and from. Walking or using personal electric transport would be made pleasant by the wide pavements, low noise levels, and clean air. 

“At weekends I might choose to order an EV for my skiing trip. Accidents have reduced since driving on roads was made illegal in 2040, but I still have a vintage motorcycle in the garage for occasional track days – I still love the thrill, the smell and the noise of these historic vehicles, but the biofuel costs a fortune.”