Will we drive on underground automated highways?

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 below.

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  • 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/
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  • 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
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