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High-tech roadways that could charge your vehicle

Imagine being able to stay on the road as long as you'd like, with the length of your trip limited only by the capacity of your bladder and not by the size of your fuel tank—or your battery, for that matter.

A pilot project about to get underway in England could make it easy. Later this year, government-owned Highways England will launch an 18-month trial designed to eliminate so-called range anxiety, by drawing power from the road to charge vehicles as they drive.

The test is one of several concepts being studied by highway planners, as they strive to make the world's roadways more evolved and better for the environment.

"Vehicle technologies are advancing at an ever-increasing pace and we're committed to supporting the growth of ultralow emissions vehicles on England's motorways," said Mike Wilson, chief engineer for Highways England.

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In the organization's pilot project, the pavement will conceal a network of buried cables and coils. Specially equipped vehicles will be able to tap the electromagnetic fields that the system creates, recharging their batteries as they drive.

A simulation of what it may look like if special EV charging lanes were added to a British Motorway.
Source: Highways England
A simulation of what it may look like if special EV charging lanes were added to a British Motorway.

For now, the test will occur on special routes with a small number of participants; but officials suggested they could expand the project onto public roads if it proves successful.

Highways England's concept is similar to the inductive charging systems commonly used for consumer electronic devices including toothbrushes or cellphones. Automakers including BMW and Nissan are working on inductive chargers that could be set up in a private or commercial garage.

The big difference here is that the British system wouldn't require a vehicle to be parked. A motorist would tap into the electromagnetic field even while racing along on one of the fast British motorways.

That could provide a significant advancement over today's battery-car technology. With the exception of the Tesla Model S, most electric vehicles can't even make it 100 miles on a charge. And Tesla buyers pay a significant premium for the larger battery packs needed to travel longer distances.

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Even then, battery vehicles typically must be recharged for hours before they're ready to roll again—something that makes a long trip a chore.

The Highways England project isn't the first to try building chargers into the road. Another U.K. venture, in the London suburb of Milton Keynes, allows special buses to recharge every time they stop at a station along their route.

In South Korea, two electric buses operating on a 7.5-mile route in the city of Gumi can tap into a similar, buried power network, using a concept called Shaped Magnetic Field in Resonance, or SMFIR.

In the coming years, motorists could see such systems become commonplace, proponents suggest, especially if there's no breakthrough in battery technology that would allow electric vehicles to store more power and slash charge times.

Critics, however, point to the high costs associated with these innovations—Highways England, for example, has listed a £500 million ($784 million) budget for these types of projects—as well as technical and build out complications.

In the meantime, researchers are also looking for ways to make roadways greener and longer lasting.

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A small Dutch company called KWS Infra is keying in on the plastic bottle, to design what it's named the "PlasticRoad." The firm says these surfaces could last as much as three times longer than conventional pavement.

The plastic blocks would have built-in conduits to route wires, drainage pipes and other roadway infrastructure. And it would simply be a matter of changing out those pieces, much like Lego blocks, to add another lane or move the road.

Meanwhile, a small U.S. start-up based in Idaho has been tinkering with a way to replace conventional roads with hexagonal blocks of glass-encased solar cells. Entrepreneurs Julie and Scott Brusaw have already paved a driveway with the material, and have generated several millions of dollars in federal grants and crowdfunding to test the technology.

As with the PlasticRoad concept, those blocks could be fitted with pipes, wires and perhaps even a charging grid for electric vehicles that could tap into energy generated by the road.