The visionaries at engineering giant ARUP are at it again, imagining the future of the highway. They predict that the number of cars on the road will continue to rise at about 3% per year on average, with China and India growing at 8%. However those cars of the future will be different than the ones on the road today:
It is expected that lighter materials (aluminium, carbon-fibre composites, high-strength steel) combined with better aerodynamics could potentially double vehicles’ fuel efficiency. Developments in material science are also dramatically improving the performance of batteries, changing the potential for electricity storage.
Fully automated navigation systems will enable driverless vehicle technology and open up new markets for automotive companies to sell to the elderly, or those with physical or mental impairments. Driverless vehicles will also have implications for the infrastructure that supports them. Roads could be made narrower, for example, and roadside signage could be reduced. Driverless cars could also increase the peak capacity of the existing infrastructure because they can safely travel in closer proximity to other vehicles.
Cars will likely be electric, and charged by induction coils in the road so that they never run out of juice while on the highway. But building those new highways is not without issues; ARUP acknowledges something that is usually ignored, the building of highways themselves through the mining, transporting and road construction. But all of this is going to require huge amounts of energy. In the understatement of the whole report:
A larger global population with expanding consumption needs will place growing demands on energy and resources. Global consumption of resources will nearly triple to 140 billion tons per year by 2050, if economic progression and consumption continue on their trajectories. This surging demand will occur at a time when finding new sources of supply and methods of extraction is becoming increasingly difficult and expensive.
There are so many ideas driving around in this scenario. Bioluminescent trees provide natural street lighting. Drones monitor from above. Roads become giant solar panels that glow in the dark. ARUP doesn't explain why high speed rapid transit runs parallel to elevated highways and cycle superhighways, but there is the note that there will be “congestion charging to encourage the use of public transit.” In other words, the one thing that doesn’t change is the rich get their private driverless cars and the rest of us take the subway or the bike.
ARUP is eternally optimistic in their vision of the future and never asks the question of what highways actually do. In a concluding line of epic consultantese they say “Thinking creatively across disciplines and areas of expertise, while leveraging opportunities brought about by advances in technology, will be key to uncovering an innovation pathway towards more sustainable and resilient transport infrastructure.”
But surely, thinking creatively, they might leverage the idea that in a seriously crowded world, there are better ways to go short distances than those urban highways chewing up waterfronts like in their photo of Brisbane illustrating their conclusions, and certainly better ways to go long distances than a private self-driving car.
Five years ago, Arup pitched a brilliant vision of the future that was all trams, rail and wind turbines, buildings being covered in green walls and topped in greenhouses. It was supposed to "demonstrate how infrastructure will evolve in an ecological Age of the future." Now it is all autonomous cars and glass towers and no explanation of where all the resources are coming from that run it all, because the ecological age of the future is long forgotten. That's a real shame.
Download the report here.
Other visions of the future from Arup that I have admired: