The road to China’s autonomous-driving future is paved with solar panels, mapping sensors and electric-battery rechargers as it tests an “intelligent highway” that could speed the transformation of the global transportation industry.
The technologies will be embedded under transparent concrete used to build a 1,080-metre-long stretch of road in Jinan. About 45,000 vehicles barrel over the section every day, and the solar panels generate enough electricity to power highway lights and 800 homes, according to builder Qilu Transportation Development Group Co.
The government says 10% of all cars should be fully self driving by 2030, and Qilu wants to deliver better traffic updates, accurate mapping and on-the-go recharging of electric-vehicle batteries — from the ground up.
The construction comes as President Xi Jinping’s government pushes ahead with a ‘Made in China 2025’ plan to help the nation become an advanced manufacturing power.
The 10 sectors highlighted include new-energy vehicles, information technology and robotics. China also has a separate plan for developing its artificial-intelligence industry that calls for the nation to be the world’s primary AI innovation centre by 2030.
Part of that effort involves building what the government calls an intelligent transportation system. Coordinating the development of autonomous-driving cars and intelligent-road systems is a focus, said Yuan Peng, the deputy head of the transportation ministry’s science and technology department.
“The ministry will offer smart roads for the smart cars that are coming,” he said.
Step one makes up a section of the expressway surrounding Jinan, an old industrial hub of about 7 million people. The road has three vertical layers, with the shell of see-through material allowing sunlight to reach the solar cells underneath. The top layer also has space inside to thread recharging wires and sensors that monitor temperature, traffic flow and weight load.
The solar panels spread across two lanes, which feel no different to a driver than the regular road, and are thinner than a 1-yuan coin standing on its edge. The test road is too short to deliver wireless recharging at the moment, Zhou said.
“From the angle of the technology itself, charging is not a problem,” Zhou said. “The vehicles that can be charged wirelessly aren’t used on roads yet.”
Qilu didn’t give a time frame for installing the sensors to transmit data and power to EV batteries. Researchers started working on the project 10 years ago. Construction took 55 days and the road opened in December.
“In the future, when cars are running on these roads, it will be like human beings,” Zhou Yong, the company’s general manager said. “The road will feel and think to figure out how heavy the vehicles are and what kind of data is needed.”