Living in the smart city – solar powered pavements and roads that can charge electric cars

Electric Vehicles, Energy & Efficiency, Energy systems, Gadgets, Internet Of Things



From big data gathering information about pollution, water use and traffic through to smart roads capable of managing autonomous vehicles and charging electric vehicles, Fast Future’s Rohit Talwar, Steve Wells and Alexandra Whittington look at what the future has in store for the smart city

In the coming decades, the planet’s most heavily concentrated populations will occupy cities where a digital blanket of sensors, devices and cloud connected data are being brought together to enhance the living experience for us all.

Smart concepts encompass all of the key elements that enable city ecosystems to function effectively – from traffic control and environmental protection to the management of energy, sanitation, healthcare, security, and buildings.

Purpose, Engagement and Vision

The evidence to date from smart city initiatives around the world is that the best results come when we have a clear sense of what the end goal is.

In a fast-changing world, it can be hard to develop a clear future vision and strategy – when every sector is being disrupted and all our assumptions are being challenged.

However, that’s exactly what we have to do. City governments must create inclusive processes that inform citizens about the forces shaping the future and the possibilities and challenges on the horizon and then engage the population in dialogue about the kind of future we want to create.

We have to explore what a liveable city means to its people and be clear on how we will attract and support a constant flow of industries of the future.Alongside this we need to articulate a clear vision and direction around education, environment, public services, access to justice, city administration, and civic engagement.

These pillars then provide the guiding requirements which will in turn influence the design of the physical, digital and human elements of a smart city infrastructure.

Surveillance vs Privacy

Smart cities are designed to inform decisions by capturing massive amounts of data about the population and its patterns, such as water use and traffic flows. This information gathering results in what is called big data, and is essentially gathered via surveillance.

There can also be voluntary efforts to collect information, but the ease and affordability of sensors, AI and advanced analytics in the future will mean this function can be completely automated.

The data can be collated from a constantly evolving and expanding IoT (Internet of Things) – encompassing traffic lights and cameras, pollution sensors, building control systems, and personal devices – all literally feeding giant data stores held in the cloud.

The ability to crunch all this data is becoming easier due to rampant growth in the use of devices algorithms, AI, and predictive software – all running on networks of high performance computing and storage devices.

Singapore’s Brain

Singapore is a leading example of a smart city, and is constantly evolving its “city brain,” a backbone of technologies used to help control pollution, monitor traffic, allocate parking, communicate with citizens, and even issue traffic fines.

The behavioural aspect is not to be overlooked. Singapore’s “brain” is attempting to modify human behaviour; for example, one system rewards drivers for using recommended mapped routes, and punishes those who do not.

Ultimately, Singapore’s planners hope to discourage driving, and guide most commuters to making greater use of public transportation. The city is planning for 100 million “smart objects” including smart traffic lights, lamp posts, sensors, and cameras on its roadways, which will be used to monitor and enforce laws.

Smart lamposts 

Companies and planners are already beginning to explore the possibilities of what a truly smart city can offer. For example, a case study from India suggests that light poles along the highways could offer both smart city and connectivity solutions.

In addition to helping monitor road conditions, the light poles could be fitted with high-speed data connections which is a critical element of the smart city/smart road future.

However, because this option will further expand the relationship between internet service providers, surveillance, and private business including advertisers, there are several issues around privacy to be considered.

South Korea’s smart roads

Of key importance to the cities of the future are smart roads where planners can put into effect the ultra-efficient mechanisms that will characterise the modern smart city.

For example, South Korea is planning an entire network of smart roads by 2020, including battery-charging stations for electric vehicles (EVs) as well as infrastructure to handle autonomous vehicles.

Autonomous vehicles will require roads to transform into information superhighways; the vehicles will need to communicate not only with each other, but also with the city infrastructure.

The need for ubiquitous data is a critical step in the evolution toward self-driving cars. Mapping, traffic signals, and safety regulations, for instance, are all parts of the physical and digital infrastructure that will have to become highly co-ordinated for autonomous vehicles to function.

Powered roads

All this data and awareness will enable decisions that make the best possible use of space, fuel, energy, water, electricity, as well as all other resources, with an emphasis on sustainability.

For example, a clear priority is being able to anticipate big traffic jams and provide alternate routes to save time, fuel, and reduce impact on the city infrastructure itself.

As Electric Vehicles (EVs) become more popular and widespread so to concerns about the charging infrastructure. One of the biggest hurdles to electric vehicle adoption is keeping a charge across long distances.

To help address this challenge, UK researchers are testing out smart road technology that charges electric cars while they are being driven!

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Solar powered pavements

Another smart technology involves pavement surfaces prepared with panels that can capture solar energy allowing streets to power themselves, which has already been tested in the US and the Netherlands.

Meanwhile, a special powder that gathers sunlight and glows at night has shown promise, but not in the wet climates of northern Europe— it washes off with excessive rain.

A futuristic concept that would not require sunshine is the capture of renewable energy with piezoelectric crystals installed beneath asphalt on busy highways. Theoretically, the crystals could capture the energy released by vehicles driving over the asphalt, which could then be stored or used for powering highway infrastructure.

Piezoelectric crystal pilot programs, though so far unsuccessful, provide a fresh perspective on renewable options for gathering energy to power our infrastructure and roads. 

Ensuring the future is human

The smart city movement now afoot has the potential to transform the organisation of people and physical objects in a way that transcends urban development as we know it.

The shift to smart infrastructure is not simply fashionable or aspirational; in many ways, it appears to be a critical enabler of the future sustainability of cities. It can be argued that the future of human life on the planet rests on a smooth transition to cities that are more efficient, less wasteful, and more conscious of the impacts of the individual upon the greater good.

This may include a range of new negotiations along the boundaries of freedom and privacy; for example, allowing self-driving cars to replace human drivers in the hope of preventing death and injury in auto accidents, increasing traffic efficiency and removing environmental impacts.

Similarly, we might have to agree to invasive monitoring of waste generation, energy and water use in the home to reach municipal conservation goals. These are the kinds of tensions that future planners will need to wrestle with on a continuous basis.

A well thought through vision, enabled by a robust and well-executed smart city model, could provide a foundation stone for the next stage of our development, where science and technology are genuinely harnessed in service of creating a very human future.


Rohit Talwar, Steve Wells and Alexandra Whittington are from Fast Future which publishes books from future thinkers around the world exploring how developments such as AI, robotics and disruptive thinking could impact upon individuals, society and business. Fast Future has a particular focus on ensuring these advances are harnessed to unleash individual potential and ensure a very human future. See:


Tech Digest Correspondent
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