Electric roads offer a path to a climate friendly planet

5 mins
23 Dec 2022
Electric roads offer a path to a climate friendly planet

Want to feel good about the environment? Ways To Save The World is here to show you ideas and innovations that are changing climate for the better

image Mario Kart 8 Deluxe DLC Wave 2 / Nintendo

words Lucy O'Brien

Hybrid and increasingly, electric cars, are being touted as the future of the motor industry. The petrol and diesel cars we’ve all been using are bad for the planet. In the UK, our Government plans to ensure at least 50% of all new cars sold will be ultra-low emission (so basically, electric), with a ban on selling petrol and diesel powered cars by 2030. But with this technological innovation comes its challenges.

Most notably the annoyance of car charging - you can’t exactly go anywhere while charging so you have to kinda sit around wherever you’ve run out of battery for a few hours. At present there’s also not a load of charging ports around the country, so you can be subject to queues, or getting stranded. Range anxiety is a thing, too, as those with electric cars anticipate each journey on the basis of how far they can get before running out of charge.

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The ease of going to a petrol station and filling up your tank in under five minutes isn’t yet matched, and it’s putting people off making the switch. However, a potentially groundbreaking road-changing innovation could be the solution for steering more people towards committing to using more sustainable transport: Electric roads.

How on earth did we discover electric roads?

Some really clever professors over at Cornell University, New York did it. They decided to dream about how we might be able to make a road that is able to charge vehicles while they drive, and they made it. Imagine something between a bus lane and those neon arrows that give you a boost on Mario Kart, except these lanes will boost the battery in an electric car while they drive, meaning that in theory there’d be no need to ever have to charge it from zero. So there’d be no need to sit around for five hours before popping to the shop.

A little like electric pavements, it involves something on top of the surface, interacting with something under the surface. In this case it’s a copper foil which is placed under the surface of the road, which reacts with a device that the electric cars will all have on their chassis (the bottom of the car). They react, power is generated in the device, which makes the wheels spin. Wahey. An example above the surface is a monorail, or those dodgems you ride in a fair. This is similar but a lot less messy to look at. It’s a wireless version. And it’s technically the same science as wireless phone chargers.

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What’s so special about electric roads then?

There has long been a need to figure out what the future of our motor industry will look like. Vehicles are a significant contributor to CO2 emissions, and with global net-zero emissions commitments creeping up on us, it’s no surprise that the motor industry was among the first places where change had to happen.

Research suggests that by 2030, electric vehicles will comprise 48%, 42% and 27% of light-duty vehicle sales in China, Europe and the United States respectively. That’s a lot of electric cars to charge. These scientists, therefore, began searching for effective ways to deal with not only the increasing amount of electric cars on the roads, but how to keep them running effectively and sustainably.

How will this save the world?

The basics are that it’ll encourage more people to go electric. Fully electric cars have no combustion engine, meaning they do not release harmful emissions like petrol or diesel-fuelled motors do. Electricity is a far more sustainable source of energy for fuelling vehicles, too and will cause less harm to the environment than fossil fuels in the long run. Especially as countries turn to sustainable ways of generating electricity. Fewer ICE vehicles, fewer CO2 emissions, less air pollution – happier planet!

But also, the roads specifically go beyond the idea of us all merely switching to electric cars. By having a road which charges cars constantly, instead of relying on stationary chargers, you can also use a smaller battery. This is both cheaper and more sustainable. It’s more sustainable because some of the minerals used to make batteries, like lithium ions and cobalt, can’t be reproduced and there’s not really enough to go around for us to make massive batteries. Plus the bigger batteries technically drain quicker, because they’re heavier. So smaller ones mean more batteries out of the resources we have. They hold less, but die slower. Ideal if we’re topping them up often.

Nice. Where are electric roads?

Ah, well they’re not really anywhere just yet. There is one near Stockholm Arlanda airport which charges electric buses for a two kilometre stretch, and the country plans to build a 21km road by 2025, with a variety of other projects in development worldwide.

Which is necessary, because soon electric cars will be everywhere. And if we want to guarantee they’re as good as can be, converting normal roads into electric ones, is the way to go.

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