Why High-Tech Highways Will Change The Way You Drive

Drive Interstate 85 in Georgia and you may happen upon an area that looks a little different. You can roll over panels that are collecting energy from the sun, then pass over a sensor that instantly detects the air pressure in your tires.

These technologies, which are being piloted at a visitor’s center on an 18-mile stretch here known as “the Ray,” offer a fascinating glimpse into the future of highways. Named after industrialist Ray C. Anderson, in honor of his forward-thinking ecological vision, this roadway is funded by innovative public-private partnerships and is becoming a living laboratory, incorporating emerging technologies that could change the experience of driving.

Cars may get most of the attention when discussing the future of driving, but some people feel it’s time for roads to have their moment in the sun. “There’s been nothing ‘smart’ about highways for over six decades,” says Harriet Anderson Langford, president of the Ray.

If Langford and others have their way, highways will have a future that’s not just smart, but brilliant. Here are some of the technologies forging that path.

Something New Under the Sun

According to the Federal Highway Administration, America has more than 222,000 miles of roadway in the National Highway System—and they’ve played an essential role in the nation’s development just by existing.

But what if these roads could do double duty? Adding a layer of solar panels to the asphalt—and feeding the energy to the power grid—has been the focus of experiments in both the U.S. and abroad over the past several years. “Solar highways could reshape America’s energy grid,” says Allie Kelly, the Ray’s executive director.

It’s a logistically tricky goal. After all, traditional solar panels weren’t constructed to withstand the constant crush of multi-ton vehicles. That’s the problem Scott and Julie Brusaw, a husband-and-wife team in Idaho, set out to solve. Since 2006, they’ve been designing panels that can be driven on, by starting the company Solar Roadways and raising more than $2 million through a crowd-funding campaign.

The hexagon panels they’ve developed are covered with a special glass that’s tough (“Think of it like bulletproof glass,” says Scott), offers equivalent traction to asphalt and is impervious to moisture.

These panels are also multi-taskers. Not only do they collect the sun’s rays, but they can heat up in winter, melting away dangerous snow and ice. In addition, they feature LED lights, which officials could use to warn motorists of upcoming obstacles or to quickly “redraw” lanes and reroute traffic.

Widespread adoption is a ways off. The Ray has just 50 square meters of driveable solar panels (manufactured by a European company) at the visitor’s center, and the Brusaws’ panels are currently installed only at a visitor’s center in Sandpoint, Idaho. But there’s been an outpouring of interest, says Julie, and they’re looking to scale up manufacturing to meet the growing demand.

Under Pressure

Future highways may not just collect power, though—they could also compile information and relay it back to drivers in real time. One important piece of data you could receive: the pressure of your tires.

Just how important is tire pressure? Around 200 tire-related fatalities occur every year, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, with some due to blowouts caused by under-inflated tires. Pressure also affects your wallet: Proper tire inflation means less fuel consumption—which could save you as much as 11 cents per gallon—and extends the average life of a tire by 4,700 miles, says NHTSA.

But checking tire pressure manually with a gauge isn’t very efficient, and too many people don’t do it often enough. “Tires are mostly ignored,” says John Catling—which is why his company, WheelRight, created a sensor that instantly measures tire pressure and tread depth, all while a vehicle is moving. It’s one of the technologies on display along the Ray.

“Making it easier to monitor tire pressure will result in far fewer roadside emergencies,” says Catling, WheelRight’s CEO. “It will also help drivers realize a fuel savings of 1–2 percent and extend the life of tires 8–12 percent.” That may not sound like much, but multiply those numbers by all the cars on the highway and you’ll see why the Ray’s staff viewed this sensor as an essential element of their vision.

The Grass is Greener

The futurists at the Ray haven’t stopped with driving surfaces. They’re working with the Georgia Department of Transportation to install more traditional solar panels along the sides of the road. “It’s another way to generate clean energy on underutilized land,” says Kelly. “And it could create revenue from a variety of sources for state DOTs.”

They’re also reassessing the land itself alongside highways. One answer to improving it: Bioswales—shallow drainage ditches that capture pollutants and prevent them from getting into the water supply. The Ray has also helped engineer a new type of wheat that can help remove carbon from the air and put it back in the earth.

A Bright Future

What’s next? For one thing, the Brusaws are experimenting with the antennae in their panels, aiming to allow for even greater communication. They’re adding a device—to be worn by a bicyclist, pedestrian or even pet—that communicates with the panels, causing them to light up in different colors to warn motorists of the wearer’s presence.

The panels could also communicate with vehicles. Reading and transmitting a car’s location would make self-driving cars safer, says Scott Brusaw, since the panels would provide more exact location information than GPS. The panels could also conceivably transfer the energy they collect to electric vehicles. “One day, you could theoretically drive cross-country and never have to stop,” Scott adds.

Solar power–collecting, ice-free roads that can communicate with your car, improve safety and help the environment: While this won’t happen tomorrow, it’s a vision that could well become a reality.

“Roads are not evolving like phones,” says Julie Brusaw. “They just lie there. It’s time for them to catch up.”

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Next: Check out another version of the future: autonomous vehicles.

By Rich Beattie