Americans love to drive long distances on the vast Interstate Highway System. But chances are when you’re driving along, you don’t give much thought to the surface your car is driving on, the vegetation growing alongside the road or what innovations could be integrated into the interstate to make your drive more eco-friendly and safe.
A pilot project called “The Ray” was started in 2014 on an 18-mile stretch of Interstate 85 in Georgia. Its goal is to have a carbon-free highway by 2040. This is being realized through a series of ideas, like a place to have your tires tested, planting new kinds of plants along the road, integrating technology for vehicles to communicate with each other, and even using recycled materials in the road itself. Anna Cullen, Director of External Relations and Communications for The Ray, said in an email that the technologies being developed and tested come from a variety of sources.
“One is through our formal, chartered partnership with the Georgia Department of Transportation,” said Cullen. “We also work with global technology consultants at Innovia Technologies to search the globe for the next generation of innovations ready for public demonstration. Finally, we have a portal on our website where people can suggest their own ideas!”
We rounded up some of the ideas that are being tested in this pilot project, some of which you might see on an interstate highway near you in the future.
The state’s first solar-powered electric car charging station is was installed in 2015 at the Georgia Visitor Information Center and uses PV4EV technology (photovoltaic for electric vehicle) technology. This major route running between Alabama in the south and Virginia in the north had few options for charging electric vehicles. Fueling stations for other alternative fuel vehicles could be added in the future.
By strategically planting certain types of vegetation on the land surrounding highways and interstates, it is thought the soil and water quality, as well as absorption of CO2, can be improved. Starting in 2016, perennial, non-edible plants started to be planted on the “right of way” land next to and surrounding The Ray. Their deep root systems can hold soil against stormwater flooding. The plants can also store carbon emitted by cars and trucks below the topsoil where it’s less likely to be released back into the environment. And in the future, there is the hope that sustainable fiber can be harvested from the roadside and used to make toilet paper, napkins and other single-use products.
Tire Safety Check Station
One of the first projects installed on The Ray was this first-of-its-kind roll-over tire safety monitoring system. This WheelRight system, installed in 2016, is meant to address the danger and fuel inefficiency of improperly inflated tires. You can simply drive over sensors that will then send you a text message with information about the tire pressure and tread depths of any vehicle that has 4 or more tires. In 2018 another component was added to analyze the tire sidewalls for damage due to rubbing up against curbs and other causes.
What is a bioswale? Well, it’s a shallow drainage ditch filled with vegetation or compost. They help slow water movement during rainstorms and trap pollutants like heavy metals, rubber and oil. Researchers will collect data in the future to track the impact the bioswales have on water quality.
Rather than grass or other vegetation, the land along this stretch of I-85 will be planted with wildflower meadows that attract pollinators. Bees, butterflies and birds that eat flowers and plants and then pollinate are important to our food supply because they help in the production of fruits and vegetables.
Another innovation being tested comes from the French transportation infrastructure company Colas. It’s called Wattway, and involves solar cells being embedded in the road surface. When heavy vehicles drive over the road, clean energy is generated. In 2019, a second generation of the Wattway solar panels was added to replace the original 50-square-meter installation from 2016.
One of the more recent additions to The Ray project is the stretch of “rubber road” that is paved with a mix of recycled tires and asphalt. The addition of rubber reduces noise and increases road durability by up to 50 percent. Using recycled scrap tires also reduces fires at tire dumps and places for disease-carrying mosquitos to breed.
The original stretch of test pavement was done on the Tom Hall Parkway, which runs adjacent to the interstate. In 2019, a mile of the 18-mile stretch of interstate that is The Ray was repaved with this rubber/asphalt mixture. This way the road durability and the number of repairs needed can be directly compared to the normal road surface.
V2X Connected Technology
In the future, cars and other connected vehicles will be able to “talk” to each other and the roads in order to ease road congestion and improve safety. Through a partnership with Panasonic, a “vehicle to everything”, or V2X, data ecosystem was created in 2019. The Georgia Department of Transportation will be able to access the V2X “brain” and gather data that is shared between connected cars and trucks and, in turn, send out information related to traffic congestion, maintenance needs and roadway interruptions. In the future, the V2X technology can aid in autonomous driving and freight platooning, where 2 tractor-trailers are electronically tethered together to control speed and other elements.
The 13 miles of roads that were repaved in 2019 were striped with 3M’s Connected Roads All Weather Elements lane markings. These high-tech lane markings will help provide enhanced lane marking visibility in wet, dry, daytime and nighttime conditions so both humans and autonomous or machine-operated vehicles can see them better.
So what’s next?
The goal of The Ray is to become a “net-zero” highway. That means no traffic fatalities annually, no net CO2 emissions, no endangered animal species and no overall impact. In doing all of that, it could serve as a model for designing other highways and roads around the world.
“Trying technologies on one 18-mile stretch of highway is not enough,” The Ray’s Anna Cullen said. “We need to scale what works and we are available to share our information, lessons learned and work with departments of transportation and others who [would] like to replicate our work in their communities…we can’t wait to address transportation carbon pollution. The time to act is now.”
Here are a couple of innovations expected to be added to The Ray in the future.
Smart Road Dots
These dots, or studs, are solar-powered and embedded in the road to communicate with both new vehicles that have connection technology, and older “normal” vehicles without the technology. They will illuminate in different colors and patterns in order to communicate alerts about dangerous road conditions, traffic and other hazards. You can see how it works in this video.
EV Charging Lanes
Yes, one day your electric vehicle might be charged simply by driving down the road. Technology being developed involves roads being wired to create electromagnetic fields that transmit energy to a receiver in an EV’s battery. This technology would be used with smaller, lighter batteries that would also make electric cars less bulky and more affordable.