Nearly everything we come in contact with these days is on the verge of “getting smart.”  And somewhat amazingly, bridges and highways are no exception. From roads that communicate with vehicles and drivers to cars that talk to each other, new technologies are about to change transportation in a big way.

(Related: take this myth-busting quiz to see if you’re up to speed on data and smart cars.)

Vehicle-to-vehicle technology is on the way

If the car ahead of you could tell your car what was around the bend, it’d probably mean a lot fewer accidents. Thanks to vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) technology, which lets cars wirelessly share data such as speed and position, this may soon be a reality.  Many cars are already equipped with Wi-Fi, GPS, and onboard diagnostics as well as safety features like autonomous braking. V2V technology could be combined with those features to make our cars even safer.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has been testing V2V technology for the last 2 years and is now working on creating a universal standard that ensures all light vehicles can communicate with each other. Regulators are proposing making mandatory V2V technology in new vehicles by 2017. But some hurdles still need to be cleared, such as finding a wireless frequency that won’t get overloaded.

In the meantime, automakers and mobile companies are bringing their own connected-car solutions to the market — but so far, they’re more about connecting to the web rather than to each other.

Connected cars are already here

BMW is on the top of the emerging connected-car market, according to a study by Machina Research. BMW’s ConnectedDrive service lets you surf the internet, check email, and stream music, and offers a variety of automated driver assistance features (like a lane change warning that tells you if there’s a vehicle in your blind spot). The 2014 BMW i models also feature a Range Assistant that estimates vehicle range and can offer route suggestions or direct the driver to a charging station.

GM and Audi are both adding 4G LTE wireless connectivity to their 2015 vehicle lines, allowing drivers to connect to the internet and use a variety of custom-built web apps.

And Apple, Android™, and Microsoft have all announced new operating systems that’ll allow users to access their smartphone via their car dashboard.

But these systems are designed mostly for “infotainment” rather than preventing accidents. And while most of their apps and features can be activated by voice, this doesn’t necessarily mean safer driving (in fact, it can actually increase the level of distraction).

Smart roads are gaining speed

On the highways of the future, cars will talk to the road as well as each other. Wireless networking devices along the roadside could monitor traffic congestion and help smooth traffic by directing cars onto alternate routes or varying the speed limit. Signage reporting delays, road conditions, or construction could be updated in real time. Vehicles could instantly send data about potholes and hazards to local transportation agencies.

These and other technologies are being studied on the Virginia Smart Road, a 2.2-mile test track managed by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute. The Institute’s director believes that connected infrastructure could be readily available within 5 to 10 years.

Additionally, the UK has gotten a head start on smart roads. Along a 50-mile stretch of the busy A14 highway between Felixstowe and Birmingham, sensors are being set up that can monitor traffic by connecting to cell phones in moving cars (and eventually to the cars themselves).

Solar roads show some potential

If you saw the video “Solar FREAKIN’ Roadways” that went viral a few months ago, you might already know about the Solar Roadways project under development in Sandpoint, Idaho. The plan involves a modular system of hexagonal solar panels that can support 250,000 pounds of weight. The panels contain heating strips to melt snow and ice and LED lights to create customized line patterns or signage. A top layer of bulletproof glass provides protection and sufficient traction to stop a car going 80 mph.

According to Julie and Scott Brusaw, the project’s creators, if the nation’s 20,000 square miles of paved roadways were replaced by solar panels, it would generate 3 times the electricity we currently use. Electric vehicles could potentially be charged while they’re driving. And power lines and fiber-optic cables could be placed in a corridor next to the roads, instead of hanging above.

Solar Roadways has enough promise that it’s gotten research funding from the Federal Highway Administration and raised over $2 million on Indiegogo. Critics say the panels won’t be durable enough and the cost of installing them across the country will be prohibitive. But the Brusaws plan to start small, with local roads and sidewalks. In fact, they’ve already completed a prototype parking lot.

The future of roadways

As fans of technology and innovation, we’re very inspired by the possibilities of connected vehicles and intelligent highways. While legitimate concerns about privacy and hackers do exist, we’ve come a long way towards safer, more efficient transportation.

And speaking of, check out this recent report on smart cars and data (and what you should know about both).

Smart technology | Travel hacks


about Ellen

Ellen has spent many years as a professional wordsmith, helping to shed light on such topics as world travel, cargo pants, and the porosity of bath tiles. As a freelance copywriter for Esurance, she brings her boundless curiosity to the world of insurance. Outside work, she can be found cheering on the San Francisco Giants, hiking in the Oakland hills, and (barely) resisting smuggling penguins home from Antarctica.