When it comes to the future of transportation and urban planning, some rather interesting proposals have been tabled in the past few years. In all cases, the challenge for researchers and scientists is to find ways to address future population and urban growth – ensuring that people can get about quickly and efficiently – while also finding cleaner and more efficient ways to power it all.
As it stands, the developed and developing world’s system of highways, mass transit, and emission-producing vehicles is unsustainable. And the global population projected to reach 9 billion by 2050, with just over 6 billion living in major cities, more of the same is just not feasible. As a result, any ideas for future transit and urban living need to find that crucial balance between meeting our basic needs and doing so in a way that will diminish our carbon footprint.
One such idea comes to us from New York City, where a small company known as HEVO Power has gotten the greenlight to study the possibility of charging parked electric vehicles through the street. Based on the vision of Jeremy McCool, a veteran who pledged to reduce the US’s reliance on foreign fuel while fighting in Iraq, the long-term aim of his plan calls for roadways that charge electric cars as they drive.
Development began after McCool received a $25,000 grant from the Department of Veterans Affairs and put it towards the creation of an EV charging prototype that could be embedded in city streets. Designed to looked like a manhole cover, this charging device runs a type of electromagnetic wireless charging technology proposed by researchers Marian Kazimierczuk of Wright State University and professor Dariusz Czarkowski of NYU’s Polytechnic Institute.
The charge consists of two coils – one connected to the grid in the manhole cover, and the other on the electric vehicle. When the car runs over the manhole, the coils conduct a “handshake,” and the manhole delivers a charge on that frequency to the car. Though HEVO has yet to test the device in the real world, they are teamed up with NYU-Poly to develop the technology, and have already proven that it is safe for living things with the help of NYU’s medical labs.
So far, McCool says his company has commitments from seven different companies to develop a series of delivery fleets that run on this technology. These include PepsiCo, Walgreens, and City Harvest, who have signed on to develop a pilot program in New York. By creating regular pick-up and drop-off points (“green loading zones”) in front of stores, these fleets would be able to travel greater distances without having to go out of their way to reach a charging station.
In order to test the chargers in New York City in early 2014, HEVO has applied for a $250,000 grant from the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority. The organization has already granted a feasibility study for the green loading zones. According to McCool, Glasgow’s Economic Development Corps is also exploring the idea of the technology in Scotland.
But looking ahead, McCool and his company have more ambitious plans than just a series of green loading zones. Already, HEVO is developing a proof of concept to place these kinds of chargers along major highways:
The concept is simple. There is a way to provide wireless charging in an HOV lane. That’s a small strip at every yard or so that has another wireless charging plate, so as you go down the street you’re collecting a charge. One wireless charging highway.
However, this is just a first step, and a major infrastructure project will still be needed to demonstrate that the technology truly does have what it takes to offset fossil fuel burning cars and hybrids. However, the technology has proven promising and with further development and investment, a larger-scale of adoption and testing is likely to take place.
Another interesting idea comes to us from Mexico, where a developer has come up with a rather ingenious idea that could turn mass transit into a source of electricity. The developer’s name is Héctor Ricardo Macías Hernández, and his proposal for a piezoelectric highway could be just the thing to compliment and augment an electric highway that keeps cars charged as they drive.
For years, researchers and developers have been looking for ways to turn kinetic energy – such as foot traffic or car traffic – into electricity. However, these efforts have been marred by the costs associated with the technology, which are simply too high for many developing nations to implement. That is what makes Hernández concept so ingenious, in that it is both affordable and effective.
In Macías Hernández’ system, small ramps made from a tough, tire-like polymer are embedded in the road, protruding 5 cm (2 inches) above the surface. When cars drive over them, the ramps are temporarily pushed down. When this happens, air is forced through a bellows that’s attached to the underside of the ramp, travels through a hose, and then is compressed in a storage tank. The stored compressed air is ultimately fed into a turbine, generating electricity.
In this respect, Hernández’s concept does not rely on piezoelectric materials that are expensive to manufacture and hence, not cost effective when dealing with long stretches of road. By relying on simple materials and good old fashioned ingenuity, his design could provide cheap electricity for the developing world by simply turning automobile traffic – something very plentiful in places like Mexico City – into cheap power.
Macías Hernández points out, however, that in lower-traffic areas, multiple ramps placed along the length of the road could be used to generate more electricity from each individual vehicle. He adds that the technology could also be used with pedestrian foot-traffic. The system is currently still in development, with the support of the Mexican Institute of Industrial Property, and will likely take several years before becoming a reality.
Exciting times these are, when the possibility of running an advanced, industrial economy cleanly may actually be feasible, and affordable. But such is the promise of the 21st century, a time when the dreams of the past several decades may finally be coming to fruition. And just in time to avert some of our more dystopian, apocalyptic scenarios!
Well, one can always hope, can’t one?