Have you ever heard the phrase “traffic calming”? It’s basically just a smart growth engineer’s fancy phrase for getting drivers to slow down and smell the coffee (and save some pedestrian lives in the process). In their simplest form, the speed bumps we all know and hate, and the roundabouts we imported from Europe, are examples of traffic calming.

But suppose a speed bump could do double duty not only for calming traffic but for generating clean electricity? Just such an experiment is underway today in Washington, D.C., at the Four Seasons Hotel. It was also tested over the Labor Day weekend at a more blue-collar location: A Burger King in Hillside, N.J. A company called New Energy Technologies developed MotionPower for use at drive-in locations such as restaurants, banks and toll plazas.

When a car hits what is essentially a slightly elevated ramp, it pushes down on an actuator connected to a generator that produces electricity. Here's how it looks on video:


In the demo version, the device merely lights a green light so drivers can see it working, but it promises to do much more. According to New Energy CEO Meetesh Patel, the high-tech speed bump could pay back its $1,500 to $2,000 investment in just two to three years.

Both the Four Seasons and that New Jersey Burger King are excited about MotionPower and say they’d consider buying in when marketing starts in a year or two. The Four Seasons, within walking distance of the White House, says it was one of the pioneers of the don’t-clean-my-linens-everyday movement, now ubiquitous in the industry. The hotel, which won the Good Earth Keeping award by the Hotel Association, will pick you up at the airport in a hybrid car if you ask nicely.

According to spokeswoman Liliana Baldassari, “We’re constantly looking for ways to be greener, and MotionPower fits right in. We just switched to salt water in our swimming pool, all our wet waste is composted, plastic tableware is made from corn and guests have the choice of ‘green meetings’ with recyclable note pads and pencils, and more plants in the room.”

Baldassari hopes that eventually some portion of the hotel’s electricity bill will be offset with speed bumps, but let’s not get carried away with what this technology can do. A car traveling over a MotionPower device develops something like 2,000 watts, says company director Jay Bhogal, but only some part of that is captured as storable electricity. Definitely enough to light a bulb, but maybe not enough to light thousands of them. I say “maybe” because the company, claiming the need to protect its trade secrets, isn’t being very specific about how much juice its unit will produce.

Jim Motavalli ( @jmotavalli ) writes about cars, technology and the environmental world to anyone curious enough to ask.

Clean power from speed bumps
MotionPower's test ramps slow cars down as they drive over a generator and produce electricity.