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Smart Roads? Georgia Plans a Stretch of Road that is High Tech

By: 
Bill Cramer

A rural stretch of I 85, from Georgia to the edge of Alabama, is being turned into a test bed and a working model for a road that every user, operator, entrepreneur, and environmentalist can fall in love with.

That’s the goal of The Ray, a project designed to “reimagine the way we connect our communities, our lives, and the world” that styles itself as “an epiphany of the Ray C. Anderson Foundation.”

Georgia native Ray Anderson was founder of InterfaceFLOR, a leading manufacturer in an industry—carpeting—that faces environmental challenges that would have a familiar look and feel for many highway operators. In his first book, Confessions of a Radical Industrialist, Anderson described the “spear in the chest moment” that motivated him to push, pull, and prod his company toward a zero waste, 100% sustainable operation.

Not long before he died in 2011, he declared that Interface was 60% of the way there, and still thriving as a business.

Now, his foundation and his children are trying to apply a similar set of principles along I-85.

Deploying the Power of Highways

Highways “are one of the most powerful pieces of infrastructure in the U.S.,” CityLab notes in a recent feature article on The Ray. But Anderson’s daughters, Mary Anne Lanier and Harriet Langford, were shocked when they realized this particular 16-mile stretch of road had been named for their trailblazing father.

“We just put the greatest industrialist of the century's name on a dirty highway,” Langford told a conference earlier this year. Today, the cars that use the road emit 250 tons of exhaust per day, consume 9.4 million gallons of gasoline per year, pollute nearby waterways, and produce 70 decibels of noise pollution, enough to drive wildlife from their habitat, CityLab reports.

The Ray’s goal is to shift the road’s profile to “zero-carbon, zero-deaths, zero-waste, zero-impact.”

They call it Mission Zero, the same name Ray Anderson attached to his transformation effort at Interface.

“What if highways could turn the sunlight they’ve soaked up into renewable energy? What if they could talk to our cars and warn drivers about hazardous conditions up ahead? And what if, instead of harming the environment, they could help protect it?” CityLab asks.

“Those questions are transforming an otherwise unassuming corridor into one of America’s most high-tech and sustainable roads. It flaunts an electric-vehicle charging station, solar panel pavement, and drive-over tire pressure sensors—and that’s just the beginning.”

Along the way, it’s generating lessons learned that will help improve highways of all kinds. The kind of innovations tolling agencies rely on every day to deliver a safer, more reliable and pleasant driving experience.

Testing Tomorrow’s Technologies

The initial wave of technologies on I-85 will just be the start. The Ray has big plans for a test bed for innovative highway systems.

“We’re at a tipping point where sensors, cameras, and other technology have infiltrated everything else in our lives, and humans are multitasked, but not our roads,” said Executive Director Allie Kelly. “My microwave does more than the road.”

Along this stretch of road, that’s about to change. CityLab describes a development agenda that includes a solar farm along the highway’s right of way, electric vehicle charging lanes, bioswales to divert storm water from the road surface, safety sensors, solar barriers to block noise pollution, drone deployment to collect data on the road, and a new, patent-pending safety technology that Kelly wasn’t prepared to disclose just yet

Even more innovative than the plan itself is the thinking behind it.

“In science experiments, trial and error are key. That applies to The Ray—essentially a 16-mile-long test lab—as organizers brace themselves for projects that may prove fruitless after all,” CityLab notes.

That’s an important attitude adjustment when a “low tolerance for taking chances has long been an inhibitor of advancing the country’s infrastructure and transport networks,” the article notes

Over the longer term, Kelly sees The Ray as a chance to transform highway funding as well as the technologies along the roadway. And while Georgia DOT Operations Director John Hibbard pointed to the long road from concept to full deployment, he welcomed the opportunity to collaborate.

“DOTs are generally pretty low-risk organizations,” he told CityLab. “But working with The Ray, in some cases, can give us some opportunity to expose the two organizations together to a little bit more risk.

For the latest on roadway technologies, register today for IBTTA’s 2017 Maintenance and Roadway Operations Workshop, May 21-23, 2017 in New Orleans, LA, and for IBTTA’s and TRB’s Joint Symposium on AET and Managed Lanes, July 16-18, 2017 in Dallas, TX.