Transparent cement shielding photovoltaic modules beneath will be used for the Hangzhou-Shaoxing-Ningbo expressway in the eastern Zhejiang province. Photo: Xinhua

China’s super expressway in eastern Zhejiang Province will be embedded with driving sensors and photovoltaic cells to support a new generation of autonomous driving applications, including safety systems and the ability to automatically recharge mobile phones.

Scheduled to open by 2022, the six-lane roadway is expected to slash the traveling time between Hangzhou and Ningbo, via Shaoxing, by 50% to one hour. Average speeds on the 161-kilometer route will be lifted by 20-30% to a maximum of 120 kilometres per hour.

The existing eight-lane expressway between the two cities has long suffered from congestion, slowing the average speed to 90 km/h. It  was also designed for speeds of up to 120 km/h.

Economic powerhouses in the Yangtze River Delta with a combined GDP of over 2.5 trillion yuan (US$393.7 billion), Hangzhou and Ningbo will showcase a range of intelligent motoring technologies, such as a warning system to ensure vehicle safety, and an Internet of Vehicles network to develop autonomous driving capabilities.

The existing expressway running between Ningbo and Hangzhou is heavily congested.

“We will make mobile charging for electric vehicles possible on the super highway in the future,” said Ren Zhong, deputy director of the provincial department of transportation.

The road surface of the new expressway will comprise three layers: a transparent material on the top, photovoltaic panels embedded in the middle to generate electricity, and insulation on the bottom. A trial section of road stretching for one kilometre around the city of Jinan in  Shandong Province, east China, opened last month for testing. Solar panels covering an area of 5,875 square metres have been inlaid.

Harnessing electricity from the solar panels, electric cars will be able to recharge from outlets scattered in service zones and emergency bays along the route. In the longer term they will be able to use mobile wireless systems to power up while they are driving, by utilizing electromagnetic induction coils under the road, Xinhua reported.

Electric cars will be able to recharge as they use the expressway. Photo: Xinhua

The new expressway will also help develop autonomous driving by incorporating adaptive data-based technologies and guiding sensors along the road that can be utilised through wireless communications. Sensors installed within autonomous vehicles and on the road itself can respond quicker than humans in the event of an emergency.

Zhejiang provincial authorities aim to install the new technologies as existing expressways are progressively upgraded. But there is a downside: tolls will be charged, and the constant sensors will make it almost impossible for drivers to avoid paying up.

Some drivers have raised concerns that exorbitant fees will be needed to pay for the road, while others have questioned whether it is purely an image-based project that will do nothing to alleviate congestion. The cost of building the super expressway has not been disclosed.

“How come the new expressway has fewer lanes than the existing one? I don’t want a smart expressway, we want functionality rather than some fancy, sci-fi-like technologies that still sound too far-fetched today,” complained one netizen in the province.