The road ahead – without potholes

IT will be the ultimate highway to heaven – a road that doesn't have potholes, never has to close for repairs and reduces the need for time-consuming roadworks.

Engineers are working on a "forever open" design involving a new generation of road surfaces that clean and repair themselves.

Construction materials that bond together when cracks appear – already in use in some paints – are being developed to minimise the time when roads have to be shut down for costly maintenance.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

New, smoother surfaces that retain anti-skid properties will allow water and detritus to drain away naturally.

The new road's green credentials are high, with a surface which collects the power of the sun's rays to re-use as solar energy. Underground heat exchangers will use the power to keep the road at a constant temperature, preventing cracks caused by water freezing and expanding. It could also supply street lights and signs with cheap energy.

Additional features include communications equipment buried below the surface for next-generation satnav, and traffic information for drivers.

Backers say the project to create what is being called "fifth generation" highways will "transform the way roads are built, designed, maintained and operated".

The new roads could cut costly damage to cars from potholes while improving drivers tempers.

The Forever Open Road project is being headed by the UK's Transport Research Laboratory and its counterparts in Europe. Development of the concept is expected to be completed by the end of next year, with detailed work continuing until 2013.

Bob Collis, director of TRL's infrastructure division, said: "The idea of self-repairing roads is based upon developing construction materials that easily bond together, such that surface cracking is minimised and the need for maintenance reduced.

"This project will bring together much of what we know already, as well as develop new research to fill in the gaps."

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Engineers and scientists across Europe would be brought in to collaborate on the project. "These are early days but it is important to start thinking about future roads now, rather than wait until the demand for change is upon us."

In today's terms, the project is as revolutionary as the four previous generations of roads – tracks, Roman roads, smooth-surfaced roads and motorways. It could be adapted to different terrain and climates across the world and could be used for everything from minor roads to arterial routes.

The new roads will bring relief for motorists frustrated by gaping potholes and constant roadworks. An Automobile Association poll last week showed roadworks were the "most annoying road feature" for drivers after speed humps. The motoring group said there were some three million sets of roadworks across the UK every year, with the disruption caused costing the economy 2 billion.

Month-long major roadworks on the M8 in Glasgow are due to finish this weekend, but Scottish motorists now face the prospect of more hold-ups ahead because large sections of the country's 35-year-old motorway network are wearing out.

By contrast, the A74(M) cross-Border route, which was completed in 1995, is the closest Scotland has to the "forever open" concept.

It was privately built under the Conservatives to a higher design standard than other motorways, with the firm responsible for construction and maintenance being paid to minimise lane closures.

Motoring organisations said the Forever Open Road research programme was a step in the right direction.

Neil Greig, research and development director of the Institute of Advanced Motorists, said: "Roadworks are extremely unpopular and drivers will welcome this concept with open arms. As long as safety issues, such as skid resistance, are not compromised, the IAM can see no problem with the concept. There is no doubt that scientists may be able to solve the problem."

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Philip Gomm, for the Royal Automobile Club Foundation, said: "For motorists used to potholes and roadworks, this scheme sounds great. Road engineering and design are key areas of transport policy that deserve particular attention and can deliver huge benefits in terms of keeping drivers moving, and also safety. A 'future-proof' road network is indeed an enticing prospect.

"The reality check comes in the form of the dire state of the nation's finances. Even if the expertise and technology can be developed, replacing the existing highways will take many years."

Paul Watters, head of roads policy for the Automobile Association, said: "We can probably fix the 'cables and pipes under the road problem' by putting them somewhere else, we can probably solve the road durability problems with the new, maintenance-free, and weatherproof technologies.

"However, the biggest headache will be traffic capacity and unexpected incidents."

Related topics: