Will we drive on underground automated highways?

Moving highways underground probably won't result in the discovery of bestial sub-humans, but it could pay off in other ways.
Moving highways underground probably won't result in the discovery of bestial sub-humans, but it could pay off in other ways.
Image courtesy Amazon.com

In the­ science fiction novel "The Time Machine," author H.G. Wells envisioned a distant future in which humans had devolved into two distinct races: The beautiful Eloi, who live an idyllic life in the English countryside, and the brutal Morlocks, who labor underground to sustain the Eloi's way of life on the surface.

Even if you overlook the Morlocks' cannibalistic attacks on the surface world, this clearly isn't an ideal arrangement. Yet the idea of pushing the less attractive elements of our lives underground isn't entirely without merit. After all, if we can bury power and communication lines, why can't we do something similar with our highways? And while no one at HowStuffWorks will make an argument in favor of creating a race of subterranean monsters to do our bidding, isn't it nice to have someone else do the work? Why can't we pass the wheel over to some manner of mechanical Morlock when we need to take a long trip?


This is exactly the theory behind the creation of an underground automated highway (UAH). Need to travel cross-country to visit your parents? You would simply drive down into the nearest UAH entrance and let your specialized vehicle's automated guidance system sync up with the highway system. You'd turn the controls over to the vehicle, which would allow you to sleep, work or play for the remainder of the drive. There would be no tracks, no moving platforms -- just your vehicle driving itself in formation with other automated vehicles. Upon reaching your destination, the vehicle would follow the proper exit, and you'd take the wheel to manually drive the last few miles.


Such a system would be safer and less congested than current highway systems. In addition, the land that might otherwise be used for highways, interstates and related infrastructure could be reclaimed. Imagine if just half of the world's highway systems could be reserved for oxygen-producing wild plant life? Think about all the hungry mouths you could feed if that land was used for agricultural production?

Are automated highway systems the future of transportation? Drive into the world of tomorrow on the next page.


Building Underground Automated Highways

Will taking the highway one day involve closing your eyes and letting automated systems drive you through a system of subterranean tunnels?
Will taking the highway one day involve closing your eyes and letting automated systems drive you through a system of subterranean tunnels?
Peter Gridley/Taxi/Getty Images

So maybe the Morlocks and Eloi had a good idea after all. There's a great deal of support for the underground automated highway system concept, and futurists and transportation experts alike have been forecasting aboveground automated highway systems (AHS) for decades. Most experts agree that when it comes to letting machines drive you through underground tunnels, it's probably more a question of when, rather than if.

Experts predict we're somewhere between 50 and 100 years away from the reality of taking the UAH to grandma's house. Creating such a transportation system, perhaps in the United States or Europe, would be a massive undertaking and to pull it off, we'd need to experience advancements in three major fields:


  1. A working automated highway system: As the saying goes, you have to learn to crawl before you can walk. For the majority of society to start using a UAH, they would first need to embrace the system and technology aboveground. And appropriate vehicles would be an essential part of any automated highway system. For instance, you couldn't launch a hovercraft-only lane on the interstate this year and expect everyone to drive in it. People would have to gradually become accustomed to the technology, purchase new hovercrafts and, if possible, update old vehicles to the new hovercraft standard. If AHSs were introduced slowly, the necessary vehicle guidance technology would have enough time to properly develop and catch on with mainstream consumers. This way, by the time the first UAH is introduced, enough drivers will be able to use them.
  2. Zero-emission vehicles: Automated or not, an underground highway would involve a great deal of traffic whizzing through subterranean passages. Such a system would be challenging to ventilate without having to pump out clouds of vehicle exhaust. You'd need vehicles that produce zero emissions through the use of fuel cells, batteries, solar power, hydrogen power or other energy-efficient methods.
  3. Improved tunnel-boring technology: Obviously, the creation of an underground highway is going to involve a great deal of digging. The Channel Tunnel, which runs 31 miles (50 kilometers) underneath the English Channel, took four years to complete [source: Encyclopaedia Britannica]. Imagine how much time it would take to complete a tunnel running the 2,776 miles (4,468 kilometers) between New York and Los Angeles? Some experts also contend that fully automated tunnel-boring technology would need to be perfected before UAHs could become a reality.

How does our current technology stack up against this list? Learn all about tunneling robots and cars that drive themselves on the next page.


Automated Traffic Underground

As workers follow a massive tunnel-boring machine, they put the finishing touches on the support structure for a train tunnel.
As workers follow a massive tunnel-boring machine, they put the finishing touches on the support structure for a train tunnel.
David McNew/Getty Images News/Getty Images

Each year, researchers make new strides in a number of technologies that would play a huge role in diverting automated traffic underground. Some of the existing technology is very promising, suggesting we might actually embark on our first subterranean road trip sometime in the next century.

When it comes to designing an aboveground automated highway system, much of the technology has been around for more than a decade. In the 1990s, the U.S. Department of Transportation sponsored the National Automated Highway System Consortium (NAHSC), which resulted in a very promising demonstration of current technology. The NAHSC equipped eight cars with several different automated driving systems. These included radar to detect other vehicles and magnetic and visual sensors to follow a length of highway marked with buried magnetic sensors and visual markers. Over the course of the demonstration, these vehicles traveled a combined 8,000 miles (­12,875 kilometers) and carried 4,000 passengers without incident [source: Smart].


Realizing the dream of self-driving cars will involve developing improved collision avoidance systems (versions of this are already on the market in some vehicles), artificial intelligence and automated, real-time routing systems. Experts predict that the first examples of automated highway systems will emerge in the form of special lanes, similar to high occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes, designated for automated commercial trucking operations. From there, as the technology becomes more reliable and available, civilian use of AHS technology will steadily grow.

On the zero emissions front, a number of major automobile companies and private design groups are working diligently to create cleaner and more efficient fuel systems for vehicles. From General Motors' hydrogen-powered Hy-wire to the Reva G-Wiz Automatic Electric Vehicle currently available in India and the United Kingdom, the technology is steadily becoming more practical and efficient.

But what about automated tunnel-drilling technology? While you might think the idea of massive, robot worms drilling their way through the earth sounds like something from the age of Morlocks, the technology is not that far off. Several countries have continued to pursue tunneling projects and associated technologies during the last decade, leading to a decrease in tunneling costs and an increase in efficiency. Recent tunneling costs have dipped as low as $1.50 per cubic foot, and the latest tunnel-boring machines can tunnel through various terrains at a rate of 20 feet (six meters) per hour [source: Smart].

­Most researchers agree that improved earthquake protection systems must be developed to ensure the safety of UAH travelers. However, designers are encouraged by past incidents where underground structures moved with the land during quakes, resulting in relatively little damage. In fact, after an earthquake struck Japan in 1995, underground projects were the least damaged structures in the city of Kobe. A massive tunneling project would also create a great deal of dirt and rock, which would need to be relocated elsewhere. Planning where to transport it would be a challenge, but using the theoretical AHS on the surface would expedite the process of moving this earth to its final drop point.

To learn more about the technologies associated with the underground automated highways of the future, visit the links on the next page.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links

  • Bishop, Richard. "What Happened to Automated Highway Systems (AHS)?" Traffic Technology International. August 2001. http://faculty.washington.edu/jbs/itrans/bishopahs.htm
  • "Channel Tunnel." 2008. Encyclopaedia Britannica. (June 21, 2008) http://www.britannica.com/eb/article-9033276/Channel-Tunnel#240863.hook
  • Federal Highway Administration. "Demo '97: Proving AHS Works." U.S. Department of Transportation. July 1997. http://www.tfhrc.gov/pubrds/july97/demo97.htm
  • Federal Highway Administration. "The National Highway System." U.S. Department of Transportation. May 29, 2008. (June 21, 2008) http://www.fhwa.dot.gov/planning/nhs/
  • Ferlis, Robert A. "The Dream of an Automated Highway." Public Roads. July 2007. http://www.tfhrc.gov/pubrds/07july/07.htm
  • Smart, John. "Underground Automated Highways (UAH) for High-Density Cities." Acceleration Studies Foundation. 2005. http://www.accelerating.org/articles/uahsframework.pdf
  • "Underground Automated Highways (UAH) for High-Density Cities: A 2030-2060 Forecast." Acceleration Watch. (June 21, 2008) http://www.accelerationwatch.com/articles/undergroundhighwaysystems.html
  • Wells, H.G. "The Time Machine." William Heinemann. 1895.