Everything is smarter these days, from smart phones and smart watches to smart appliances and smart homes. Up next: Smart highways. And if Daan Roosegaarde has his way, they’ll be as beautiful as they are brainy.

As conceived by the founder of Studio Roosegaarde in the Netherlands, “smart” in this case means replacing unsightly, energy-sucking electric lights with soothing, glow-in-the-dark lines that define the edges of a roadway. A gel-like, photo-luminescent coating – think glow-in-the-dark paint on steroids – creates the ethereal-looking lines, which get “charged” by sunlight and can glow for up to 10 hours. On cloudy days, solar panels supply the charging power.

Roosegaarde is an artist/designer and self-proclaimed techno-poet who was recently named one of the five most influential “green” leaders in the Netherlands by a leading Dutch newspaper. His mission: to change our auto-centric landscapes for the better, both visually and environmentally.

“Whenever we talk about innovation and mobility, it’s weird how we focus on cars, while roads are somehow pushed away in a corner,” Roosegaarde notes. “But the infrastructure you and I use actually dominates the landscape much, much more. If cars are getting smarter, roads should as well. It’s all about safety and energy-neutral lighting.”

In terms of energy consumption and expenses, road lighting is no small matter. In Britain, a report compiled by the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) estimates that street lighting in England alone costs councils about £616m ($967m) per year. Moreover, it also accounts for almost one-third of the country’s carbon emissions.

In the United States, the US Energy Information Administration estimates that the commercial sector – which includes street and highway lighting – used a whopping 274bn kilowatt-hours of power in 2012. While the agency doesn’t break down specifically how much of that is consumed by public street and highway lighting, the amount would not be insignificant.

Moreover, cities around the globe are resorting to either dimming lights, using smart lights that only go on when needed or turning off lighting completely at nightfall to save money and reduce carbon emissions from electricity plants.

The glowing lines concept is currently undergoing a test run on 15,000 feet (1,452m) of Highway N329 by Oss, some 60 miles southwest of Amsterdam. Built in conjunction with European construction giant Heijmans, it is one of several smart-highway-related concepts imagined by Roosegaarde, including:

  • temperature-responsive road paints that alert drivers to icy conditions by changing colour
  • interactive lights that turn on when cars approach and dim after they pass
  • “wind lights” powered by small pinwheels generators spun by the draft of passing vehicles
  • priority driving lanes with underlying induction coils that recharge electric cars as they drive

Another Roosegaarde innovation – the Van Gogh bike path – debuted recently in Eindhoven, where Vincent van Gogh lived from 1883 to 1885. Inspired by the painter's The Starry Night and built by Heijmans, the path – which connects Van Gogh heritage sites – uses sunlight-charged paints to create a twinkling, glow-in-the-dark pattern for night illumination.

Roosegaarde stresses that the glowing lines material is a coating, not a paint; it took over a year to engineer it. Thanks to optical sleight of hand, the roadway illuminator looks like one line from a distance. But a closer look reveals that it’s actually three different lines created by cutting shallow channels into a road, then filling them with the luminescent gel, Roosegaarde explains.

“We played with three lines because we wanted to build up volume, while at the same time using as little material as possible,” he explains.

Are the lines bright enough? Roosegaarde assures that they are. In fact, he contends that in foggy conditions, the lines are safer than electric lights located high atop poles. “The light is where it needs to be – on the bloody road, not 8m high,” he says.

Roosegaarde declined to detail how much glowing lines cost per mile, but he notes that they are easier to install than light poles, not to mention more attractive. He also claims that as the concept gains adoption, the cost per mile will diminish, just like with most new technologies.

“In the coming three to five years, the cost will come down and it will be competitive with street lighting,” he says. "It’s something for the future, but at the same time, it’s in the now."

Roosegaarde says the Dutch government has commissioned him to implement a glowing lines installation on the roadway atop the 32km (19-mile) Afsluitdijk, the iconic Netherlands dike that keeps the Wadden Sea, an arm of the North Sea, at bay. Officials from Canada to the Middle East also have expressed interest in the technology, he says.

“My personal dream is to give [US] Route 66 an update,” he adds.

Why the intense focus on roads? Roosegaarde – who describes himself as a “hippie with a business plan” – cannot explain it. “I have no idea how my brain works,” he quips. But he is fascinated by the places where technology, people and public space converge, and if he can illuminate such intersections, all the better.

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