The road ahead – Arup ponders the future of driving

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Imagine a world free of traffic jams, roadworks, and pollution, where your car drives you wherever you want to go while you sit back and relax. This might sound like the stuff of dreams, but according to the Future of Highways report from engineering consultancy Arup, this could be exactly the sort of stress-free motoring we’ll enjoy in years to come.

Driving in a global context

The report looks at how rapid development of our cities, along with climate change, dwindling resources and changes in human behaviour, will affect our roads, cars and driving habits. Currently, more than half the world’s population of seven billion lives in cities, with a staggering 172,800 new urban-dwellers joining them every day. According to Arup, this means that by 2050, around 75% of people will be live in cities.

Jam tomorrow?

Although the number of cars on the road is expected to increase by 3% annually until 2030, after that numbers are expected to reduce, with people more likely to hire vehicles when they need them, rather than buying them. Changing behaviour and increasing awareness of the importance of health and fitness will also mean that more people will, we’re told, turn to walking, cycling and other modes of transport to get around, rather than relying on cars.

Charge of the electric car brigade!

Those that do drive will look for more environmentally-friendly vehicles, so gas-guzzling cars will become an increasingly endangered species. Hardly surprising that the pumps will run dry sooner or later. Electric cars will grow in popularity, with technological developments enabling batteries last longer than they do currently, so drivers won’t be restricted to just a few miles before having to re-charge.

Ditch the pilot

Cars will also become driverless, thanks to fully-automated navigation systems, so you can simply get in, programme where you’re going to, and let the car do all the hard work for you. They’ll also be able to broadcast and receive information on traffic, speed, weather and any safety hazards, adjusting route accordingly. This increased ‘intelligence’ is down to what Arup describes as the ‘Internet of Things’ – the connection of devices, sensors and machines to the web.

Only connect…

At the moment there are around 1.84 connected devices per person on the planet, but by 2020 this is expected to rise to around 6.6 devices per person. Cars will even be able to communicate with each other, letting each other know about potential hazards as well as relaying information about their speed and direction.

Solar roads

But it’s not only cars which will become more technologically advanced in years to come. Arup’s vision of the future includes advanced solar panel road surfaces, which would generate clean and renewable power. Electric cars could be charged as they are driving along, or when they are parked, so you wouldn’t have to plug them in overnight as you do now.

Panel heaters

Solar-panel surfaces would have other benefits too, as they’d contain LED lighting to light the way, as well as heating elements to keep roads snow and ice-free. Drivers would no longer have to fear skidding in freezing conditions (but there’d be no excuse to take the day off work in bad weather either.) New technologies will create other possibilities too, for example, such as concrete that uses bacteria to heal cracks, therefore reducing the need for repairs and roadworks which snarl up traffic.

Science fact

These developments might all sound as though they belong in a sci-fi movie, but they might happen sooner than you think. For example, Milton Keynes is already charging electric buses wirelessly as part of a trial led by Mitsui and Arup. Arup is also working with the Crown Estate and Land Securities to use centres to consolidate goods and deliver them to shops on London’s Regent Street with the ultimate aim of reducing the number of polluting diesel delivery vans. Whatever happens in the future, it is clear that we need to take action to tackle not only to make driving more environmentally friendly, but also to reduce the pressure on our infrastructure from our growing population.

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