A Left Brain/Right Brain debate on Solar Roadways

An recurring conflict between the dreamers and the dream crushers

Vincent Le Quang
Jun 30, 2014 · 7 min read

Several months ago, a crowd funded project has made its appearance on IndieGogo. The idea, initiated by a humble couple called the Brusaw, seemed a bit of a science fiction project. Imagine, the roads on which you drive your car every day, being replaced by sophisticated solar panels, that not only providing energy from the sun but also provides several advantages:

  • melts the snow covering the road making them safer to drive
  • detects animals crossing to avoid accidents
  • show customized displays through some LED lights.
  • self cleans itself ( I didn’t completely understand that part). Apparently it also cleans dirts from the road and puts it into a gutter.

I’m sure there are more crazy ideas associated with this project, like recharging your car while driving, or perhaps have the roads move by themselves so you don’t even need a car.

This is not entirely science fiction however, the project is already underway and it has been racking $2.2 millions of donations.

While the two millions does show that the project has a great amount of support, it has also spurs a series of articles and videos against the projects. Because after all, how much is it really gonna cost to replace every road in America with expensive electronics?

Let’s look at what the expert naysayers are saying about the project. There are many arguments that actually make perfect sense when we think about them:

  • The cost would be prohibitively expensive. Even keeping in mind that items manufactured en masse can be significantly cheaper than a single prototype, each road piece is a collection of expensive raw materials. This really does have a point.
  • Cars would be driving back and forth on high tech electronic. This would require a very resistant layer to protect it, which would itself be exensive. Or it would be a maintenance nightmare as road pieces would regularly need to be repaired.
  • There’s a security issue: Imagine the danger we’d encounter if a hacker was able to control the lights on the roads, causing havoc within the traffic.
  • This one really takes the cake: Why putting solar panels on the road when there’s a lot of other, better, safer place to put them. Nobody is driving on your roof, and there’s a lot less shadow. At the end, it would be a lot more viable economically. Even if it’s not on the roof, there’s plenty of free space out there on the ground, so what advantage do we gain putting solar panels where they will get pressure from heavy cars and trucks? When we do the math, the benefit of solar roadways over solar panels on the roof is pretty much: pretty lights on the road and prevent cars from hitting the moose crossing the road.

Then, who could be so foolish enough to give a penny to this campaign …

Well not me, but I wish others do…

I’m not giving a penny because I watched a video from the Solar Roadways campaign and had the vague impression of familiarity with watching those Ponzi scheme or “Get rich quick working from home” videos. At the same time, as I watched that same video, a part of me became somehow hopeful about the future. A part of me wanted to put my dough and get one of those mugs for $5 donations, as a memorial of the time I contributed 0.0000001% to save the earth. A part of me wishes I had put those five dolllars in. But don’t worry about me, I’m just schizophrenic.

Now, why even pay attention to this idea when all arguments are so obviously against it. It turns out, there’s a part of your brain that is completely irrational and acts on emotions. That’s your right brain. It makes decisions that are mathematically idiotic and obviously wrong… yet… that part of the brain exists, because very often, that part is right!

Did you ever have a feeling when you really want to do something irrational and useless, and there’s no explanation behind it? (Like writing this article?) A lot of people will agree that most of teh time, the right brain makes mistakes. Yet, some of the happiest people on earth really just follow their (I’m gonna sound cheesy) heart, and obey their feelings.

As for me, since my schizophrenic mind has reached an equilibrium, I agreed that I won’t put a penny in the Solar Roadways campaign, but instead waste the equivalent in time writing this article. As I thought more about this, I realize there’s more to think about that I originally thought…

The cost, the feasibility of the task, the difficulty… my thoughts were based on what I know about the world right now. I didn’t really account for the progress of technology. What if this kind of project was realistic for someone thinking in the future. I don’t think the Brusaw are asking to pave all roads in America by the end of next year. They just want to evolve the project progressively until that goal is achieved, however long it might take. The end result… is not realistic for a brain of the twenty first century. But then, is it the technology that is impossible or our brain that’s faulty? What if the minds of the twenty second century thought it would costs peanuts to build a project like that… what if the minds of the twenty second century wished we had gone for that crazy solar roadways ideas as they see their planet slowly succumb to global warming…

That’s really the right brain using tricks again, trying to convince with scare tactics and emotions. That won’t work on left brain. At the end, the left brain can’t get passed the simple fact that solar on the roads rather than the roof offers nothing more than pretty lights and less moose casualties. And in this world, only right brains care about that. How can we get over that simple fact?

Well, right brain doesn’t really have a great argument for it, but here it is. Adding more panels on the roof as opposed to covering the road with them… well that’s not as disruptive. I’m not even sure it can be called progress.

Hum… ok right brain… It’s what makes the most sense economically, and… simply put… it’s what makes the most sense period!

Yet, it’s not disruptive. If we took an analogy on Apple, Solar Roadways would be the invention of the iPhone, while adding solar panels on the roof would be the iPhone upgrade from 4 to 5. That’s an improvement, but it is not disruptive. It barely matters in the grand scheme of human history.

But why does it matter? Why does this have to be disruptive?

Quite simply, the world cannot truly evolve without disruption. Without disruption, we might be riding faster horses at the moment instead of cars (and there’d be less pollution and the earth would be in a better state… ok I won’t go into that). But it is important to realize that the ideas that seem dreamy and irrational are the ones really making a difference in this world. Also, we have to realize that all rational thinking dismissing solar roadways, is the same rational thinking centuries ago that would dismiss cars, airplanes, computers, television… Those who are saying solar roadways are impossible. Aren’t those the same kind of person who stubbornly claimed, centuries ago, that the earth was flat? Yet there’s nothing wrong with that, at that time, it would be rational to think like that. In fact, based on pure rationality, the future we have today could not possibily exist for the minds several centuries ago. Even today, we are continuously discovering things that never existed or were logically impossible. Only a few years ago, we discovered the Higgs Boson… I still don’t understand what it is but anyway… I don’t think many of us living in the eighties imagined the internet we have today. So if we factor the fact that our mind isn’t fit to predict the future, why can’t we imagine a world where solar roadways are possible?

A remaining argument against the campaign would be, why now? Why not just wait until the technology makes solar panels so cheap that the project would become rationally feasible.

Well what makes progress? What makes solar panels become dirty cheap? Does it really just happen automatically? Does the world progress by itself? Actually, it most likely does, and the reason for it might actually be due to disruptive innovations. The reason why the world progress even if you do nothing, is because others are doing something. No matter what, there are still people who will continuously come up with ideas as irrational as solar roadways to make the world move towards a direction.

At the end, what is the answer? Should we keep funding this campaign or stop it before it becomes a financial black hole? I actually don’t think the campaign has the potential to ruin the economy, but we can ask, is that money better spent elsewhere? I think the elswhere would be another irrational idea that makes as much sense as solar roadways anyway. Personally, I’m right brain dominant, so I do hope and dream that this project blossoms, giving us our solar freaking roadways, or who knows, perhaps something else even better.

    Vincent Le Quang

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