Transport is experiencing a radical transformation. Much faster than anyone expected, the application of new technologies in the car industry, Big Data and the sharing economy are changing the way people think about travel. These advances, together with the increasing global population, will contribute to an increase in the number of cars, threatening unsustainable levels of traffic.

The main consequences of this growth in traffic are losses in productivity, more accidents, atmospheric pollution and a negative impact on public health.

The World Economic Forum (WEF) estimates that the number of cars in the world—currently around 1 billion—will rise to 4 billion by 2050. Vehicles are responsible for 17% of global carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, in addition to nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and fine particles. In the EU alone, this has resulted in 450,000 premature deaths, costing the region’s economies over $1.4 billion a year.

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As a result, road infrastructure is undergoing a radical change. Once limited to physical components such as barriers and traffic signals, our roads now include elements such as wireless networks and artificial intelligence. Among other potential benefits, this intelligent infrastructure is an essential part of creating the conditions for autonomous vehicles, which promise to reduce traffic accidents by 90%. Dynamically managing traffic through techniques such as ramp metering and dynamic lane control also have the potential to reduce congestion and pollution.

The road surface itself is a major source of innovation.

However, not all smart traffic management techniques require new physical road infrastructure. Data collected from drivers’ smartphones and, in some cases, satellite images can also be used to allow more efficient use of roads.

The road surface itself is a significant source of innovation. Roads cover a large proportion of the Earth’s surface, especially in cities, and a number of emerging technologies promise to transform this once-inactive asset into something more productive. For example, roads and pavements may be fitted with solar panels coated in small glass particles that allow people to walk or drive on them. Piezoelectric systems can be used to generate power from the pressure created by vehicles circulating on road surfaces. There is also research on using alternative materials to reduce the environmental impact of road construction.

The next five to ten years will be crucial for the future of the world’s roads. The technical standards and regulatory frameworks currently being drawn up will lay the foundations for developing and managing roads in the coming years. Policy experts seeking to take advantage of the opportunities offered by technology to improve the safety, sustainability and efficiency of roads need to become involved in this process sooner rather than later. But what would happen if we don’t take the correct measures?

If we meet the challenge by 2030

It’s 2030. The world’s roads are smarter, cleaner and safer. Productivity has increased, there are more electricity charging points than petrol stations, the omnipresence of connectivity has accelerated the use of driverless vehicles, and innovative energy solutions, such as piezoelectric roads, have helped us meet sustainable development goals.

Road infrastructure is smarter

– Traffic jams are no longer dead time. The exchange of data between roads, vehicles and their users has reduced lost time and helped increase productivity.

– The human factor is no longer so important. Cruise control systems are more sophisticated and combine external speed recognition with cameras connected via GPS. Speed is automatically controlled and does not depend on the driver.

– Road sign companies and vehicle manufacturers have developed dynamic signs that provide real-time information on traffic conditions.

– Smart phones provide critical feedback on the quality of roads, helping the people responsible for them focus on maintenance work.

Electric cars have become popular in wealthy countries

– Electric cars are available at competitive prices, batteries last longer and governments invest in infrastructure.

– There are more electricity charging points than petrol stations.

– The most forward-looking governments have more and more official electric vehicles.

– Goods are transported by autonomous electric lorries, improving the efficiency of the supply chain and reducing environmental impact.

– The USA has reduced transport emissions by over 500 million tonnes of CO2 with respect to 2014 and the EU, which proposed a 47% reduction in fuel emissions, has achieved a figure of 52%.

Autonomous driving and safer and smarter roads

– Autonomous vehicles make up 40% of traffic in the most advanced countries, powered by wireless connectivity through 5G and 6G mobile networks.

– Singapore and the United Arab Emirates have played their part and implemented sweeping public policy reforms. These include the deployment of self-driving vehicles in their transport system. Moreover, one in every four private vehicles now has a driverless system, which is particularly important in countries such as the United Arab Emirates, which has one of the highest accident rates in the world.

– Partly thanks to improvements in vehicle safety, the total number of deaths from traffic accidents has fallen to 800,000 a year, compared to 1.25 million 15 years ago.

– Nike has incorporated a chip establishing communication with connected vehicles into its footwear so that cars automatically brake and switch off if a pedestrian is detected within a radius of one metre.

Innovative solutions mean transport infrastructure is no longer a source of danger and pollution.

Roads transformed into sources of energy

– Innovative energy sources, such as piezoelectric roads and the incorporation of solar panels into road surfaces have transformed transport infrastructure from something dangerous and polluting into an ally in the quest to achieve the sustainable development goals.

– Solar panels now make up part of the landscape of many primary and secondary roads, especially in sunny areas, such as California, Florida and Texas in the USA, and Australia, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. What’s more, they can also be found on the roofs of car parks. China has become the world-leader in the manufacture and production of solar panels.

– Piezoelectric roads, which generate energy from the mechanical stress created by vehicles are making progress as an innovative source of energy in countries such as France, Israel, Holland and cities in the Persian Gulf.

2030: all talk and no action

In this version of 2030, there has been less change. Current road systems are similar to the previous century and black asphalt continues to reign supreme. Vehicle emissions throughout the world are higher than ever before. Efforts to reduce climate change and improve public health by tackling air quality have come to nothing. Traffic accidents in developing countries have increased and traffic jams hinder economic growth in both wealthy and poor countries.

Traffic: an economic, environmental and public health problem

– Although road sensor technologies that monitor and manage traffic flows have received investment from various governments, this has only resulted in a few advanced markets concentrated in urban areas, which is clearly insufficient.

– A large volume of data is collected from smartphones, connected vehicles and road infrastructure. However, privacy and security concerns in handling this data prevent it from being used and shared to improve traffic flow.

– The environmental cost of road traffic continues to grow.

The list of cities most affected by pollution is led by Mexico City, where vehicles are responsible for 50% of greenhouse gases, with a 4% increase in car sales. Rio de Janeiro and Bucharest have also been seriously affected.

– Countries have failed to meet the targets in the 2015 Paris Agreement because vehicle manufacturers have failed to reduce pollution from emissions. CO2 emissions from road transport continue to grow: in 2030 they now represent 30% of the total, compared to just 22% in 2015.

– Worsening atmospheric pollution from vehicle exhausts has increased the occurrence of chronic illnesses such as asthma, chronic pulmonary obstruction and cancer.

The growth in traffic has caused losses in productivity, more accidents, atmospheric pollution and had a negative impact on public health.

The stagnation of electric cars

– Led by the likes of Tesla, Ford and Toyota, these are the only brands that have maintained significant investment in developing electric cars, meaning they represent just 4% of global vehicle sales. Petrol and diesel cars continue to dominate.

– Transport authorities and car companies are clear about the benefits of electric cars but cannot agree on who should pay for charging infrastructure. On the one hand, governments are reluctant to invest until there is a critical mass of electric vehicles on the roads. On the other, the private sector does not want the electric car to become a mass-market product until there are sufficient charging points available to the public.

– The elimination of government subsidies is causing sales of electric cars to fall. The industry has been unable to reduce the cost of batteries, the biggest obstacle to reducing the price of electric cars. Some companies have started working with lithium-ion batteries but there has not been enough scientific progress to launch compact and safe batteries with a high energy density.

– The continued reign of petrol engines has worsened air quality in cities throughout the world. In the Persian Gulf and South East Asia, levels of pollution in cities are ten times higher than the officially recommended levels. The reason: the growing wealth of many countries has transformed the dream of vehicle ownership into a widespread reality.

Traffic or life?

– Countries have stopped investing in road safety technology and the number of deaths and disabilities caused by traffic accidents throughout the world has doubled since 2015, when there were just 1.25 million deaths per year. The problem is worse in developing countries due to poor road signs and the weak application of driving laws, exacerbated by rapid urbanisation and increased car ownership.

– Self-driven cars promised to dramatically improve road safety but a series of accidents has prevented legislators from authorising the mass production of driverless cars.

Text: Juanjo Moreno
Source: Road Tech Report (Economist Intelligence Unit)
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