Georgia is paving the way for a high-tech, sustainable highway

The Ray Solar Road
The Ray

If you want to see what the highway of the future might look like, then you only need to drive down to Georgia.

On an 18-mile segment of Interstate 85 — stretching from the city of LaGrange to the Alabama border, 67 miles from Atlanta — a consortium of government agencies, global companies, and academic researchers, along with the Ray C. Anderson Foundation are working together to build a smart roadway. Using a variety of technologies ranging from electricity-generating surfaces to pollution-reducing ditches, it’s a real-world laboratory that’s paving the way to the roads of tomorrow.

It’s also aimed at demonstrating how a smart transportation corridor can not only be environmentally friendly, but generate revenue as well.

That tantalizing possibility — making money off public roads — has attracted a lot attention to what is known as “The Ray,” the stretch of I-85 that includes the right-of-way land along the highway, the highway itself, and the Georgia Visitor Information Center in West Point. Officially the Ray C. Anderson Memorial Highway, the segment is named after the man who founded Interface Inc., a carpet manufacturer, and the namesake foundation that’s involved in the project. Anderson, who died in 2011, was recognized during his tenure at Interface for his efforts to make his company environmentally sustainable, and projects that promote a sustainable society is one of the nonprofit’s goals.

Like urban environments, highways present an interesting opportunity — and a significant challenge — for new technology solutions. Roadways impinge on natural habitats in 15 percent of the country, for example, and the cars and trucks that travel on them produce millions of tons of carbon dioxide annually.
And, there’s a lot of pavement out there: Over 164,000 miles of highway crisscross the United States. That’s enough concrete and tarmac to go around the world 6.5 times.

So far, most of those are roads do only one thing: carry vehicles. The Ray wants to show they can do much more.

A highway powered by the sun

Perhaps the most ambitious idea is to turn all that pavement baking in the sun into a giant solar power source. At the West Point Visitor Information Center, the Ray is starting with Wattway, approximately 538 square feet of solar panels laid down on the road’s surface. Durable enough to withstand the traffic from tens of thousands of vehicles a year, the photovoltaic pavers are thin and skid-resistant, and can be installed over existing pavement, so there’s no need to tear up roads.

The Ray Solar Road
The Ray

“The next project is to see if it’s feasible to put solar panels in the shoulder of the road,” Costas Simoglou, director of the Georgia Center of Innovation for Energy Technology, told Digital Trends. Simoglou is interested in putting the panels on the side of the highway not because of durability concerns, but they would get more sun exposure.

Wattway was developed by the French transportation company Colas. The technology took over five years of research and development, working in conjunction with the French National Solar Energy Institute. Wattway currently provides electricity to the visitor center, but it could do much more.

Additional energy generated by Wattway could not only feed electricity back into the grid, but also power everything from street lights to traffic signals. It could be a source of electricity anywhere there’s pavement and people: shopping centers, airports, even bike paths. Solar panels on the road could also power needed vehicle-to-infrastructure communications for the forthcoming generation of self-driving cars.

Then, there’s the electric car charging stations. At the visitor center, there are charging stations for electric vehicles, sponsored by Kia Motors, which has a manufacturing plant in West Point. The stations are currently powered by pole-mounted photovolaic solar panels, and owners can power up their electric cars free of charge.

“But solar could be a new revenue source for the state,” Simoglou said. “There are already 25,000 electric vehicles in Georgia. So the state could eventually sell electricity” rather then charging gasoline tax.

Keeping vehicles in top shape

Roughly 700,000 people make a pit stop at the West Point visitor center every year. So, it’s not just an ideal proving ground for new technologies, it’s also a great way to show drivers the benefits these new smart systems have to offer them.

One of the most successful projects, for example, is the WheelWright system. People drive their cars slowly past the system’s wheel sensors, which take thousands of pictures of the tires in a few seconds. WheelWright, a British company, will then either spit out a paper report or text the driver with information on the tire pressure and tread wear on the car. The goal is to alert drivers when their tires are under inflated, which can reduce fuel efficiency and traction, or need to be replaced.

Kia WheelWright
Kia

The technology has other possible applications, such as the thousands of truck weigh stations across the United States. Today, most commercial truck drivers do a visual — and not terribly accurate — inspection of tires and tread wear. The WheelWright system could do it more accurately and more quickly.

It’s not just the highway that benefits

Highways comprise more than just pavement, of course. Other parts of The Ray project are working to leverage the land alongside the road.

Instead of conventional ditches, for example, The Ray is utilizing so-called “bioswales.” Rather than simply facilitating rain runoff, bioswales are shallow drainage ditches that are filled with vegetation that is known to capture particulate pollutants, such as rubber, lead, and oil that can wash off the road. The plants, often switchgrass, are all native to Georgia, and some bioswales include compost to slow water movement and reduce the threat of sudden flooding in a rainstorm.

“We would love to have this carbon-free highway — zero waste, zero carbon, zero deaths.”

Other smart agriculture road work includes planting wheat farms along and around the highway. The project has been using intermediate wheatgrass, which have 10-foot deep roots that help prevent soil erosion, help retain clean water, and trap carbon. The perennial is currently in the midst of a three-year study along the side of The Ray.

The Ray just received state approval to install a 2-megawatt solar array in another right of way, said Simoglou of the Georgia Center of Innovation. The new solar array will be installed at an exit ramp near the city of LaGrange. Future solar array plans include using the panels strategically to also act as noise dampening walls — all of it covered by a pollinator meadow ground cover.

It has to be safe, too

Besides sustainability, smart infrastructure must be safe, as well. It’s estimated that $277 billion is lost every year in the U.S. due to car and truck accidents, according to the entities behind the project.

“We would love to have this carbon-free highway,” said Harriet Anderson Langford, president of The Ray. “So that’s zero waste, zero carbon, zero deaths.”

The Ray

Smart roads could include speed warning systems, for example. One technology is speed control pulsing. The system, developed by Innovia, involves embedding light studs in the road. The studs flash in sequence to warn drivers of trouble ahead — yellow to reduce speeds and red for congestion or traffic stoppage ahead.

The lights can also be used to encourage safe following distances, alerting drivers when they get too close or tailgate cars in front. A line of red studs along the dotted white lane dividers could also tell drivers there’s a vehicle approaching from behind and that it’s unsafe to change lanes. The smart dots could even be used to deliver lane departure warnings and alerts about black ice. It means any car, not just newer connected cars, could benefit from early alerts to help them avoid accidents.

Showcase for others to follow

So far, the costs associated with The Ray project are relatively small. The organization’s executive director, Allie Kelly, says The Ray spends about $1 million a year. The money comes from the Georgia Department of Transportation, private corporate partnerships, and the Ray C. Anderson Foundation endowment.

For government departments like the DOT it’s a chance to test new smart infrastructure technologies. For the private firms involved, it’s an invaluable real world testing bed to improve their technologies. (Colas, for example, believes it will now be able to bring the cost of its solar pavers down to the equivalent of roof top solar panels.)

For The Ray, it’s a way to spread the ideas and solutions for a smart road infrastructure to other states and communities. There’s now a constant flow of new visitors to the Georgia site, from Florida and Missouri state reps to researchers from the asphalt industry and academic institutions.

“All this smart stuff can be overwhelming, especially for town managers” trying to balance budgets, Simoglou said. So The Ray is out to shown them not only how smart roads can be sustainable, but also be a sustainable business.

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