The Green Cheapies

The Roads of the Future May Be Closer Than You Think

Chad W. Lutz
His name is Scott Brusaw and he's got an idea that might just change the face of the world, literally. His idea touts broad claims that it will eliminate our dependency on oil and fossil fuels, that it will prevent pollution, and even, “save countless lives.” These are pretty big boasts for any entrepreneur to make, especially one that goes as far as to say, “I wasn’t even an environmentalist.” Even Alan K. Breed back in 1967 probably felt his necktie tighten a little when he first revealed the concept of the air bag to the Chrysler Corporation. Revolutionizing an industry can't be easy. Revolutionizing the world, damn near impossible.
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The man behind it all: Scott Brusaw
The Dayton, Ohio, native turned Idahoan is banking on the necessity of his new invention in the 21st century in hopes that it will make a significant difference, not only in the lives of Americans, but the lives of people living all around the world. Countries like Japan and several European nations are already vying for his idea. So, what is this mystery “S” cape-wearing eco-technology? Roads. Digital roads. Solar powered to be exact. Unlike most entrepreneurs, however, whose ideas generally get brushed aside and never make it past that bittersweet moment of inception, his idea is already gaining steam, and might just be a necessity to save the planet.
(Photo by Dan Walden)
The idea involves equipping America’s highways and roadways with LED lights and electronic sensors that will run off of solar-electric generators. These new roads will consist of 12-foot by 12-foot panels, each containing microprocessors that will control its corresponding panel. These panels will be equipped with lights and sensors used as part of a new infrastructure system that will enable road crews and technicians to do a number of pretty awesome things, including the ability to digitally relay important messages on the actual surface of the road to warn drivers of obstacles like fallen debris or animals in the path of their oncoming vehicles. From parking lots to city streets and the highways that lay beyond their limits the Solar Roadways project would turn every asphalt surface into a digital driveway (which is actually an avenue the project is already experimenting with) capable of alerting commuters of road conditions, traffic patterns, potential hazards; even reckless drivers. The new roads would even warn drivers of oncoming traffic down dark and potentially hazardous winding roads.
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As a runner, this is exceptionally appealing. According to a 2006 study published by the Los Angeles Times, the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration found that, “pedestrians have a slightly higher chance of being killed in a car crash than those in a vehicle.” One of the main contributors to this statistic? Bad lighting. Countless are the times I’ve found myself diving into ditches or jumping for cover into people’s front yards as cars go blindly whizzing by on my morning runs. I’m sure that I can probably speak for most of my fellow running brethren when I say that I have been nearly run off the road by drivers beeping their horns, cursing wildly into the early morning air too many times to remember. But Scott’s idea might change all that. When tested in the UK, reports showed the roads actually reduced nighttime accidents by as much as 70 percent; good news for runners and outdoor enthusiasts, bad news for bad drivers.

Reducing accidents and increasing visibility are only part of what the digital highways bring to the table. The Solar Roadways Project might even be able to reduce criminal activity on our streets and highways. Brusaw made mention of the use of sensors that will indicate whether or not a car has crossed over the centerline in the road. If the centerline is crossed over frequently enough, the roads will actually draw a circle around the car, essentially highlighting it as a hazard, making it easier fellow motorists to identify careless car operators and for authorities to single out drunken and disorderly drivers.

The Project, currently in its second of three phases, has already shown some practical use and exciting promise during the first phase of the process. The first phase went into the development and research of the roads. This involved finding the materials that would make it all happen. Though they haven’t come up with a material strong enough to endure the surface pressure applied by most semi and dump trucks, the University of Dayton is currently working on a bomb-resistant glass, which should be able to withstand the pressure caused by the average 18-wheeler.
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Abound with seemingly endless possibilities; a 12-foot by 12-foot panel is used as a maze for kids.
The idea for Solar Roadways came to him while joking around with his wife, Julie. She and Scott had been following the Global Warming debates closely in the early part of last decade, and one night she suggested his “electric roads” as a solution. Back then the idea only existed as childhood drawings inspired by his beloved slot car track he used to play with as a kid. Now full grown, Scott originally laughed at the idea, but as he toiled over its possible applications, it became clear that his solar-powered roadways might not be that bad of an idea.

According to the Transportation Resource Board, construction and maintenance of America’s highways cost the American taxpayers, “approximately $100 billion a year.” When compared to the staggering budget the United States government currently uses for its defense spending, around $712 billion in 2009 alone accounting for over 46% of the world’s military spending, this may not seem like much. However, compare that to the dismal $69.9 billion the government spends on education and $100 billion starts to sound like an insane fortune. What the Solar Roadways project hopes to do is to eliminate some, if not most, of the costs incurred in the construction and maintaining of our current highways and roads. With the cost of construction materials constantly on the rise the Solar Roadways project seems to be a solution that’s not only highly sensible, but highly sustainable as well. It’s not just in terms of its ability to generate electricity, either. The reduced need for maintenance of the roads would ultimately save the country millions, possibly billions, freeing up funds to tackle other domestic problems like healthcare reform, unemployment, and oil dependency.

Americans, as well as the rest of the world, are helplessly dependent on fossil fuels as a main energy source. Fossil fuels, “account for 80% of the world’s energy usage;” a statistic reported in a 2006 Scientific American article by Gary Stix entitled, “A Climate Repair Manual.” Brusaw would like to see this change and stated this as a long-range goal of the project. In the interview, he mentioned the necessity of weaning the use of fossil fuels as important to the future of this country. It became increasingly aware to me during the interview that this may be one of the most viable options we have for creating a more sustainable country, not only in terms of the environment, but in terms of the general public as well.
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“Asphalt roads are astronomically expensive to maintain, state DOT’s and the Federal Highway Trust Funds are broke, and there really aren’t many other viable options.” – Scott Brusaw 1/25/2011
Another crucial environmental aspect of Solar Roadways is the mass incorporation of Electric Vehicles into the Project. Electric Vehicles are propelled by gasless electric motors powered by rechargeable battery packs. These cars emit no tailpipe pollutants and are said to feature a quieter, smoother ride than their internal combustion counterparts. The average battery of an Electric Vehicle lasts roughly 100 – 200 miles, only about 100 miles less than that of the average gasoline-powered car. The only clear drawback is that these batteries can take up to four to eight hours to fully recharge. What the industry calls “Quick Charges” are available, though, that feature an 80% capacity charge capable in about a half hour’s time. Car industry giants Nissan, Mitsubishi, and Tesla already have Electric Vehicle prototypes in the LEAF, iMiEV, and Tesla Roadster respectively, however other car companies have been slow to jump on the electric engine bandwagon.

Utilizing the energy harvested from the solar-powered generators that will be included as part of the proposed highways and roadways Scott’s team is currently working on will also be the inclusion of electric refueling stations. Most official opponents of the eco-friendly car design say that Electric Vehicles just aren’t feasible in today’s society. These facts and figures, however, are spun in fossil fuel fiction and don’t take into account that there basically aren’t any EV refueling stations in America. On the flip side, as of 2002, there were more than 117,000 full-service gas stations located throughout the country. Now 2011, it’s safe to assume that figure is probably a bit outdated. With the exception of Alaska, where winters get so cold that residents are forced to keep engine block heaters mounted on their cars basically year round, there hasn’t really been a need for the mass production of EV refueling stations in the lower forty-eight. Brusaw hypothesizes that if Americans had easy access to refueling stations people would find it more attractive, and sensible, to “go green,” so to speak, and purchase Electric Vehicles, which would make sense. I doubt anybody would buy iPods if the closest place you could find to recharge your Nano was located over 3,400 miles away.

Towards the end of the interview, Brusaw spoke with me briefly on the subject of jobs in this country. When asked how many jobs he projected the Solar Roadways project would create, he estimated that nearly 2 million jobs would be created as part of the project. Employment opportunities in construction, installation, and logistics would be instantly created, almost overnight, to assist in the development and implementation of the project. So far, no formal job surveys have taken place to properly estimate the number of jobs a project like this might potentially create both in the immediate future and long term. But at a time when unemployment rates continue to rise, and jobs continue to remain at an all-time scarcity, with many businesses taking opportunities for work overseas, the Solar Roadways Project could provide millions of Americans with lucrative (not to mention socially beneficial) lines of work in a highly viable industry.

The United States of America seems to be heading for a point break. Programs that offer promise, like the Ohio Hub project, somehow find their way onto the legislative chopping block and get axed before our very eyes. The price of gas continues to rise, and our infrastructure continues to crumble under the stress of harsh winters and the weight of more than 135,000,000 autos. Already, Brusaw and many other project leaders have pitched the idea to politicians and special interest groups alike in hopes of catching the attentive ears and open wallets of constituents also concerned about the viability and sustainability of our country in the years to come. So far, these efforts haven’t gone without reward, but haven’t been met without resistance. Although the project still has a long way to go before we see solar-powered panels being installed in downtown Cleveland, it might not be long before we start seeing our roads go green, and for the time being, there’s at least one man trying his best to steer clear of an uncertain future by offering Americans, and the rest of the world, a plan to generate eco-friendly technology geared towards the economic sustainability of our country using two things Americans are more than passionate about; open road and the shining sun.