By now you’ll have seen at least one video promoting Solar Roadways. The Indiegogo fundraising campaign has been one of the biggest ever. Here’s an overview video that’s also over the top, but basically, the product is a hexagonal solar panel embedded with grids of LEDs and, in colder climates, heating grids to melt snow. Used as paving stones, the panels would use all that available road space to generate electricity, keep snow-and-ice-free in winter, and microprocessor-controlled LEDs can be used to show lane markings, crossings, or even moment-by-moment traffic alerts and warnings about road hazards ahead.
A tough tempered glass covering engineered for traction and strength. Clean energy. Ice-free roads without car-eating salt. Traffic alerts right in the road surface. Sounds perfect, right? Hundreds of online investors think so. Then, as a science fiction writer, should I be including these in the landscapes of my near-future stories?
Maybe not. I’m also not big on flying cars. Or personal rocket packs. It’s not that we can’t do these things, it’s just that we won’t.
The biggest hurdle is that the initial capital costs are too high. Some municipalities might budget for very gradual conversion to roads like this, when times are good, but higher levels of government don’t think past the next election, and road costs like this won’t get them re-elected. Additional objections raised by others range from how to keep the solar panels clean, to the dangers of hackers creating traffic mayhem by messing with the LEDs. Any and all of these problems might be solvable—technology marches on. Yet we’re still driving big boxes of metal pushed by internal combustion engines along strips of asphalt because society hasn’t had the collective will to change that.
To those of us willing to see that fossil fuels are a dead end street, there’s just something that feels right about using all of that road space around the world to generate clean energy. But there’s also huge amounts of available roof space, that’s much easier to utilize. Why not start there, and power our electric cars?
What we really need to change is the personal automobile. We’ve got to stop single drivers from carting eight-passenger SUVs with them as they commute bumper-to-bumper into and out of city cores. Have you seen those prototype vehicles that look like enclosed motorcycles? They could work. Or, laugh as much as you want, vehicles like the Segway for short trips around city cores or neighbourhoods. Maybe powered by low-voltage electrical strips in the pavement (yes, possibly even generated by solar panels). Not hovercraft, though—wheels, because they’re simple, low-friction, and have low energy requirements. And for longer distances on high-traffic routes, something like Elon Musk’s proposed hyperloop system: ultra-high-speed rail in near-vacuum enclosed tubes. Those are the things I’ll put into near-future stories.
Flying cars and rocket packs would be cool, but just aren’t practical. Solar roadways crossing the continents could be practical, but for the near future, sad to say, they’ll remain too good to be true.