Newly Formed International Research Partnership Envisions a New Roadway Electrification and Automation System

By Eric Warren
Utah State University Research Foundation
July 1, 2010

NORTH LOGAN – Six internationally renowned organizations have formed an alliance to develop a new Partnership for Roadway Electrification and Automation.  PREA aims to merge vehicle, roadway and energy infrastructures into a flexible, convenient and increasingly automated electric transportation network.  The partnership consists of the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy and Oak Ridge National Laboratories, University of California Berkeley PATH Program, University of Auckland, Utah State University and its Energy Dynamics Laboratory, and the Utah Transportation Center.

PREA will challenge the century-old paradigm suggesting that vehicles must be powered solely by on-board energy and manually operated on conventional highways. By not confronting this paradigm, the U.S. and many other industrialized nations find themselves facing eight interdependent, but jurisdictionally-separated challenges in the 21st century:

  1. complete dependence of road transportation on fossil fuels
  2. lack of transportation fuel diversity that periodically results in economy-damaging gasoline price shocks
  3. traffic congestion problems in and around major cities
  4. outdated highway infrastructure
  5. air pollution
  6. greenhouse gas emissions
  7. highway crashes
  8. a resultant drain on overall economic vitality

In the U.S. alone, without factoring in the national defense expenditures needed to ensure energy security, these challenges represent a drain on the American economy estimated at hundreds of billions of dollars annually.

PREA envisions a new class of “flex-mode” hybrid electric vehicles capable of receiving their power both from on-board energy sources as vehicles do today, and from “electric roadways” on which they may travel. Electric roadways will consist of upgrades to existing limited-access highway lanes that will have electrical coils buried beneath the road surface which wirelessly transmit power to vehicles traveling over them.  While on electric roadways, flex-mode vehicles will enjoy nearly unlimited range and in-transit charging of their on-board batteries, and in addition will use no petroleum and produce no local emissions.

The second aspect of PREA, automation, will address two major concerns of the U.S. Department of Transportation and state departments of transportation:  safety and congestion.  By automating the control of vehicles, the performance and attentiveness limitations of human drivers will be overcome with expected significant reductions in traffic congestion and crashes.  Automation will also allow the close-spaced platooning of vehicles, saving energy, reducing congestion and increasing throughput, thereby minimizing the need for construction of additional lane miles of roadway.

The goal of an automated vehicular control system will be achieved by building on the current USDOT’s Intelligent Transportation Systems Joint Program Office efforts in vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure communication, IntelliDriveSM, to create a robust system that will provide crash avoidance and vehicle guidance.

For the three years prior to the formation of the PREA partnership, the founding organizations conducted a series of studies, workshops and internal research. These events led to feasibility demonstrations of wireless power transfer and preliminary assessments of consumer costs, utility grid impacts, occupant safety, and highway capacity improvements.

As the founding organizations have evaluated this PREA system over the past three years, they have become increasingly convinced of its overall merit when compared to the combination of alternatives. In response, an invitation-only technology roadmapping workshop is being planned in Park City, Utah this summer to outline the technical and institutional hurdles, transition pathways, and Stage 1 research needs to further develop these needed technologies.


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