If cars, traffic and navigation can be "smart," is there any reason for roads to remain as dumb as bricks?
Not according to the unlikely combination of Daan Roosegaarde, a Dutch art-school bohemian, and Heijmans, a conventionally minded infrastructure developer, who are teaming up on an array of quirky, interactive designs that could change the way streets look and even act.
Their futuristic products include glow-in-the-dark road markings, interactive streetlights, battery-charging e-lanes and illuminated foul-weather warnings, among other innovations. And they are not alone in Europe in rethinking the highway landscape in an age of high technology; they may simply be out in front.
The designs are the brainchild of Mr. Roosegaarde, a 33-year-old artist known for his interactive works, who says the highway designs were inspired by his travels on Europe's outmoded superhighways a few years ago. "Everything's changed but our highways," said Mr. Roosegaarde, who lives in the port city of Rotterdam, where he also has a studio. "I wondered why we're sinking millions into these obsolete and ugly monstrosities instead of creating something new and better."
His vision to smarten up his homeland's highways found an interested collaborator in Heijmans, a gritty Dutch infrastructure company that, until it joined forces with Roosegaarde Studios, had made out just fine laying run-of-the-mill roads across Belgium and the Netherlands.
The first pilot project, done pro bono by the creators, is to become reality this year along a 150-yard strip of trial road in Brabant, a Dutch province on the Belgian border. The idea is that luminescent green road markings painted on the road will make street lighting redundant. This is intended not just to save lighting costs, but also to increase safety by improving visibility on roads that had no lights at all.
A crucial component is a new photoluminescent paint created by Mr. Roosegaarde that, he explains, has much in common with the paint on glow-in-the-dark toys. (Its ingredients are closely guarded.) The mixture is painted onto the roads in the normal fashion, and the markings are charged by sunlight during the day -- and by headlights through the night -- so they remain visible for 10 hours after nightfall. All of the standard road markings, from lane indicators to emergency shoulders, will appear after sundown in an otherworldly glowing green, which Mr. Rossegaarde says is the color easiest to see in the dark.
Another smart-highway project is symbols, in this case giant snowflakes, that appear on the road when the temperature falls below freezing and the surface potentially becomes slippery. A temperature-sensitive ingredient in this paint mix (also secret) responds to cold by lighting up in phosphorescent white. The road thus communicates "Beware!" to the driver -- and eventually, perhaps, to the car itself.
The Dutch inventors have other ideas, too, including roads tailored to electric cars. Mr. Roosegaarde owned such a car for several years before he traded it in, ultimately disappointed. "It was too much hassle," he said, "all the charging and waiting."
He sees a solution in priority highway lanes that would charge battery-powered cars from below while in motion, using underground induction coils. Sound far-fetched?
The Roosegaarde Studio's first groundbreaking project was an interactive dance floor that generated electricity through dancers' movements on sensors embedded in the floor. Unlike the e-charging road, which is still in the lab, the sustainable dance floor exists -- in Rotterdam's popular Club Watt.
In the United States, Solar Roadway, a company in Sandpoint, Idaho, is working on streets made of electricity-generating photovoltaic cells that generate enough electricity to recharge electric cars at rest stops and parking lots along the way.
And Via Inteligente, a Madrid-based information technology company, has embedded wireless technology in paving stones.
The product, called iPavement, integrates Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connectivity in durable paving tiles that have their own operating system and integrated apps. While the product is for walkways, not roads, the idea of an intelligent, Internet-connected road that communicates with drivers -- or just with their automobiles, in the case of autonomous cars -- is also in the works.
In Germany, Siemens, the electrical engineering company, is experimenting with stretches of autobahn outfitted with overhead electric cables. The idea is that hybrid diesel electric freight trucks, functioning much like San Francisco's street cars, could use these special lanes for long-distance, zero-carbon transport. Using built-in technology and software, the trucks would run on electricity and diesel power, automatically switching to electric mode when they detect and attach to the overhead grid.
"These kinds of ideas always sound great," said Ferdinand Duddenhöffer, a German mobility expert at the University of Duisburg-Essen. "But the question is how much do they cost, and the answer is usually quite vague."
Indeed, Roosegaarde Studio and Heijmans decline to put prices on their creations, saying it is still too early.
Mr. Duddenhöffer also notes that few of these projects have been tested for safety, which together with the price will determine whether they become everyday technology or wind up among the discarded blueprints of well-intentioned eccentrics.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.