Photo: AFP
Photo: AFP

A section of highway in the eastern Chinese city of Jinan is undergoing a transformation unlike any seen in the world, which may offer a window into the future of transportation itself.

Equipment such as solar panels, mapping sensors and electric-battery rechargers are being embedded in the 1,080 meter-long stretch of road, according to a report in Bloomberg this week. The panels will be able to generate enough electricity to power highway lights and 800 homes, according to the developer working on the project, Qilu Transportation Development.

“The highways we have been using can only carry vehicles passing by, and they are like the 1.0-generation product,” Zhou Yong, Qilu’s general manager was quoted as saying. “We’re working on the 2.0 and 3.0 generations by transplanting brains and a nervous system.”

“In the future, when cars are running on these roads, it will be like human beings,” Zhou said. “The road will feel and think to figure out how heavy the vehicles are and what kind of data is needed.”

The possible development underscores the leg up China has over developed markets in one aspect of race to develop driverless car technology: the ability to develop new infrastructure.

As Asia Times columnist David Goldman reported here, one industry specialist recently opined on this fact in a conference call held by consulting firm The Information:

“If you’ve been to China […] over the last couple of years and watched it grow, they are literally building new cities all of the time and then they move populations into them. And these cities frequently have infrastructure that is unheard of in the US,” the expert said.

“Just as an example, fences that keep people off the roads. Someone who jumped the fence and runs out into the road and gets hit by a car – that’s the pedestrian’s fault. Simple things like that make the self-driving problem several orders of magnitude easier [emphasis added],” he added.

“So even without looking at their ‘technology pool,’ just their ability to do simple things like that I think really makes China a very, very attractive target for developing autonomy. I think it would be foolish to count them out in any way, shape or form. The China market may end up being something that is very big and profitable for the companies that are there.”

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