“My guess is that you don’t spend much time thinking about the road at all,” the TEDxAtlanta presenter tells her captive audience. “There’s been almost zero innovation in the road itself in over 70 years.”
The speaker is Allie Kelly, and she’s on-stage to share how we can “start over and demand more” from our country’s roads — more sustainability, more safety, more efficiency. Kelly is Executive Director of The Ray, the only non-profit in the world that runs a living laboratory for transportation technology and clean energy pilots on an actual stretch of public highway.
The Ray is part of I-85 and stretches from West Point to LaGrange, the two cities in which entrepreneur Ray C. Anderson lived and began his company, Interface, Inc. After establishing the billion-dollar global manufacturing company, Anderson began to examine how he could use business as a force to not only turn a profit, but do good for the world.
His daughter, Harriet Langford, shares that when Anderson read The Ecology of Commerce, one of the early environmental treatises, it was “a true spear to his chest.”
“He looked at himself and said, ‘I’m part of the problem,’” Langford tells Hypepotamus. Anderson spent the remaining part of his professional career working to transform his company into a sustainable enterprise, saving $450 million across company operations in the process. In 2007, he was named one of Time’s Heroes of the Environment.
When Anderson passed away in 2011, he left his money behind in a Foundation administered by Langford and the family. They invested in several initiatives, one being the 18-mile stretch of highway that was to become The Ray.
Langford initially sponsored the road as a simple tribute to her father, but quickly realized its potential for environmental and transportation research.
That’s when Kelly came in. A long-time conservationist, Kelly met Langford while serving as senior vice president of the Georgia Conservancy.
She took over the administration of The Ray’s projects in 2015, and the team got to work.
One of their first projects was an electric vehicle charging station powered by solar energy.
Electric vehicles have the potential to drastically reduce emissions as they become more popular, shares Kelly, but transportation officials have to provide charging stations in convenient areas in order to make them feasible for consumers.
The charging station, the first of its kind in Georgia, is located at the Georgia Visitor Information Center along The Ray.
In 2016, that same Visitor Center also became the site for the first U.S. Wattway installation, a pilot solar cell-paved road that is applied directly over the existing road and literally produces electricity from the pavement itself. The Wattway is located on a 50-square-meter section of an access lane leading to I-85.
The energy produced from the Wattway now helps power the Visitor Center. Kelly shares that this type of pavement generates enough energy to power a home for a year. “Imagine that — your driveway powering your house,” she asks the TEDxAtlanta room to envision.
The Ray has since also installed a standalone solar array, in partnership with the Georgia Public Service Commission, the Georgia Department of Transportation, and Georgia Power, on the side of the highway. The one-megawatt array — 2,600 solar panels — makes Georgia only the third state in the U.S. to place a solar facility on a highway shoulder. It will be fully operational this spring.
These projects all illustrate Kelly and the Anderson family’s belief that transportation can be transformed into a funnel for renewable energy, rather than a drain on energy resources. But what about the next pillar of her commitment — improved safety?
One option they’re already testing is changing the actual material of the road. Last year, The Ray team and Troup County re-paved one mile of a road adjacent to I-85 with a mix of traditional asphalt and rubber, derived from recycled tires.
The rubberized pavement not only extends the life of the road by 15 to 20 percent, but also makes it safer as drivers are less likely to skid and hydroplane during rainstorms. Moreover, it lowers the impact of the 300 million tires that are thrown into dumps each year, causing tire fires and breeding disease.
In 2019, more than half of The Ray will be re-paved with rubberized asphalt.
But Kelly is looking even farther ahead to more tech-heavy safety innovation. Last year, The Ray claimed a designation by Fast Company’s World-Changing Ideas awards for its proposal to create a smart road dot, a feature that will replace the standard road dots you see on highways around the country.
The smart road dots will change colors to communicate with drivers on The Ray, perhaps reserving one color to signal black ice, another for an accident up ahead, and yet another for bad weather conditions and possibility for skidding. The smart dot will gather its data from sensors placed in the road itself and be connected to smart vehicles by mesh network.
The Ray is currently testing the smart dot prototype, says Kelly, and has now partnered with the Georgia DOT to pilot a transportation data infrastructure that can help inform a future network that she calls V2X, or “vehicle-to-everything.”
Other current and future projects could utilize drones, sustainable planting, and even road lanes that charge electric cars while they drive. Kelly and the team’s vision is bold and wide-reaching, and they’re moving full-steam ahead.
“Roads can be a vehicle, pun intended, for good,” Kelly says as she wraps up her talk. “Let’s drive into the future.”