Appearances can be deceiving on the roads these days

April 1, 2021

This column published as "More Than Meets the Eye" in April 2021 issue

“Has that palm tree always been there?” “How did I never notice that water tower?” “Was that 24-ft cactus there yesterday?”

For years motorists across the U.S. have been asking themselves these questions while doubting their own sanity. 

If this sounds like you, don’t worry. Those things you see aren’t real, but you’re not going crazy.

With the proliferation of cell phones and smart devices, cellular network towers have been sprouting up everywhere. 

While everyone loves wider cell coverage, no one wants new towers built in their neighborhood. Resembling a model of the Eiffel Tower that a child dropped on the floor and then quickly tried to reassemble before anyone noticed, these structures are a bit of an eyesore. 

As a result, a whole new industry has been created around the camouflage and concealment of cell towers.

You’ll find cell towers hidden inside faux cacti in the Southwest and artificial palm trees on the West Coast. The Northwest uses fiberglass evergreens, and there are even plastic water towers in the Great Plains.

Now 5G technology is rolling out, which creates new concealment challenges. 

5G networks take advantage of the extremely high radio frequencies opened up by the Federal Communications Commission in 2016. These frequencies allow for faster connections and greater bandwidth, but they can’t travel as far as 4G wavelengths. 

That means thousands of new “small cell” towers will need to be installed—and concealed—nationwide. 

Home is where you park it

Quartzsite, Arizona, calls itself “the RV boondocking capital of the world” for good reason.

Each winter, this sleepy desert town of 4,000 residents swells to over 2 million as snowbirds head south in their RVs to take advantage of the warm weather and free camping in federal parks.

Of course, camping off-grid in the desert means you’ll need to bring your own power source, and for most campers that means a generator and lots of fuel.

However, Ryan Pohl believes he has a better solution. The 32-year-old engineer has found that used lithium-ion car batteries that are too depleted to run an electric vehicle still have enough juice to power a small home. 

Pohl has been collecting old Nissan Leaf batteries at auto auctions, from junkyards, and even off Craigslist. He breaks down each of these 48-cell batteries and repackages them into eight off-grid units. 

Powered by solar panels placed on the vehicle’s roof, these units have enough energy to run the lights and the appliances in an RV or camper.

Pohl’s first installation was for his own Chevy Astro van in 2015. Other campers grew curious about his setup and soon began asking for their own.

Word of mouth around Quartzsite has created a thriving business for Pohl, whose installs are cheaper than off-the-shelf products and can save campers hundreds of dollars on generator fuel. 

With 11 million tons of lithium-ion batteries expected to reach the end of their utility over the next 10 years, business should be booming for quite some time.

Do Not Disturb

With COVID restrictions in place for much of the past year, many of us have not been driving as much as we used to. 

In fact, analytics company INRIX found that congestion in major U.S. cities fell by nearly 50% in 2020, saving drivers an average of 75 hours of annual commute time. 

But that doesn’t necessarily mean that drivers were spending 75 fewer hours in their cars.

A new study commissioned by auto manufacturer Peugeot revealed that among drivers who live in a household of four people or more, 41% began using their car as a work or leisure space at some point during the pandemic.

It’s not surprising given that 58% of all respondents said that the increased time at home with a partner or immediate family has made it hard to find time for themselves.

So what was driving people to hide ... er ... relocate to their car?

Eighty percent said they were looking for a quiet space to work, 19% said they were catching up on TV, and 18% said they just wanted to read a book (or perhaps their favorite road and bridge construction trade magazine column) in peace. 

About The Author: Matthews has been chronicling the unexpectedly humorous side of transportation news since 2000. The stories are all true.

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