Can vehicle and highway technology help to realise an environmental vision?

6 min read

Automotive technology, in its broadest sense, is moving ahead quickly, but many of these technical developments can be seen as point solutions. What might be achieved if all of these ideas were to be integrated into a project that also has environmental goals?

That’s the aim of an ambitious scheme which is getting underway in the US. The Mission Zero Corridor Project is planning to create a sustainable highway using a 16 mile stretch of the I-85 in Georgia. The formal title of that portion of road is the Raymond C Anderson Memorial Highway, but it’s known locally as ‘The Ray’.

Making a difference

Anderson founded what developed into the world’s largest manufacturer of carpet tiles, with a turnover of more than $1billion per year. In 1994, he read a book about the impact which business was having on the environment and learnt from the book that business could make a difference. Realising his company was having a negative impact, he determined to change things. In the process, he became one of the world’s greenest CEOs.

Those changes brought a huge reduction, amongst other things, in the company’s carbon emissions and waste. And yet his company remained profitable; the changes Anderson implemented were also good for the bottom line. His conclusion was the company could ‘do well by doing well’.

Anderson died in 2011, leaving money for a foundation to undertake a range of environmental projects. Amongst these is the project to use The Ray as a demonstrator for sustainable highway technologies, to be a test bed for new ideas and to show what might be possible.

One of the aims for The Ray is that, over its 16 miles, it has no negative impact on people, flora, fauna or the landscape. Allie Kelly, executive director of The Ray, said: “It’s incredibly exciting and also enlightening to begin to think about bringing The Ray to life. What does the world’s safest, zero impact highway look and feel like? How does it operate?

“Our goal is to impact not only the environment – through resource efficiency, power generation and emissions capture or minimisation – but also to create a safer and more resilient highway for humans and for wildlife.”

It’s an ambitious vision and one which Cambridge based design consultancy Innovia Technology is helping to realise. Andy Milton, who is leading Innovia’s work on The Ray, said: “We have to make sensible decisions about technology. We don’t mind ambition, but the goals must be sensible.”

Innovia was established in 1999 by four physicists as an innovation consultancy and now has about 55 people. Milton said it has a broad based approach to innovation. “Our core capability is innovation, but we can bring a range of sciences to bear, as well as engineering skills and industry expertise. We also have behavioural specialists and, by asking strategic questions, we focus on front end innovation. We work closely with our clients on solving their challenges.”

The company has developed a range of multinational clients, including the likes of Nike, Ford and Kraft. “Our clients tend to be larger corporations,” Milton continued. “While many think that innovation is about new products and services, it can also be about how companies make things – using less energy, for example.”

And it was one of Innovia’s clients that provided an introduction to the Anderson Foundation. Milton said: “We’ve been working with The Ray team to identify where we can make the biggest impact in the shortest time and to create a future vision of a zero impact highway.”

Milton continued: “We envisage the future could be a road with a lot of embedded smart technology or, alternatively, the road itself might be cost-effective and frugal, with all the technology contained within the vehicle.

“We found some interesting challenges that could be solved quite quickly,” he continued. “Tyre pressure monitoring is one.” Ensuring vehicles have the correct tyre pressure improves their fuel efficiency. This system can be installed using mats and Milton believes it could be needed for the next 10 years before all vehicles are fitted with monitoring systems. “Tread depth is another and we’re looking at a drive over system for this. We’re picking the things that make sense and which can help make an impact on The Ray.”

Dr Shreyas Mukund, another Innovia consultant involved in the project, noted: “Some things we’re looking at will be quick wins, but others will take longer.”

Other ‘quick wins’ involve a range of ideas. One, seemingly bizarre, is to use hog manure as a binder for asphalt. “Hog manure is not environmentally friendly,” said Milton, “but it can be reconstituted for use as a binder. Not only is it cheaper than the bitumen binder currently used, it also improves the road’s properties.”

More mainstream developments will include a move to LED lighting. “That’s not new technology,” Milton continued, “but has a quick pay back and lower maintenance costs.” And there is a move to use solar powered smart road studs, integrating a solar panel, battery and LED. Dr Mukund said: “These have already been trialled in the UK.”

Intelligent road studs developed by Astucia have been used in Scotland as a fog warning system, changing colour to warn road users of the weather hazard. They can also be used to relay instructions and warnings of traffic conditions ahead.

More ambitious are the plans to embrace electric vehicle (EV) technology. “EVs are beginning to be accepted,” Milton noted, “and users have a choice between batteries and fuel cells.” But he also noted that EVs have problems with range. “We can help with that by installing dynamic charging technology into the road. That’s something that has already been trialled in a few places – for example, a bus route in Korea.”

Dr Mukund added: “If it’s an interactive system, it will need coils in the road and coils in the vehicle. But in the Korean trial, it has reduced significantly the weight of batteries in the buses.”

Innovia has developed two potential ways in which the vision of an environmentally friendly highway might be achieved. One is a high tech approach, in which the infrastructure plays an important role alongside vehicles. The other is the so called frugal approach, where most of the technology is installed in vehicles.

A high tech vision

Dynamic charging is part of the high tech scenario. But how could such a system be powered in a sustainable fashion? Solar energy is one way. Dr Mukund pointed out that US roads have a lot of unused space which could be used to generate clean energy. But he also noted longer distance solutions could be possible. “One of the challenges with ‘smarter’ roads is transporting power and roads are a ‘natural’ for high voltage DC transmission.”

In Innovia’s high tech vision, a range of technologies might be applied to make The Ray eco friendly. Road tolls are one example, but applied flexibly so that users pay for such ‘luxuries’ as driving alone or for using inefficient vehicles. A premium could be charged for using a fast lane during periods of peak traffic.

Revenues could be raised by installing personalised advertising on overhead gantries. The combination of vehicle recognition and smart billboards will enable targeted adverts, Innovia suggests. On a similar theme, vehicle specific information – such as directions – could be displayed on these gantries.

The high tech highway would also require an extensive network of sensors. “For example, the network could capture information on emissions,” Milton offered, “as well as acting as a test bed for new types of sensor.”

Dr Mukund pointed to broader benefits. “Safety, for example. Could we measure the behavioural changes brought about by this technology? And there are infrastructure benefits; a lot of US states have a big backlog of maintenance, so a sensor network could be used not only to monitor the highway itself, but also the condition of bridges.”

Sensors might also be used to monitor traffic density and to keep an eye on the behaviour of each vehicle, perhaps through image recognition. Dr Mukund said: “If there’s low traffic density, vehicles may become more dependent on road based sensors.”

There will also be the opportunity to take advantage of developments in vehicle to vehicle (V2V) and vehicle to infrastructure (V2I) technology. “We want to encourage collaboration,” Milton pointed out. “While we’re starting with the road, we are also in a position to modify how the road can ‘talk’ to vehicles and anything we can do to help push the development of V2V technology will be good.”

Tying all this technology together will require an extensive communications network. Innovia is suggesting a high bandwidth, low latency wireless network running along the length of The Ray, with fibre optic cables installed alongside the road.

The frugal view

Milton said: “If you can put a lot of technology into the vehicles that use the road, can we take a more frugal approach to the road itself?” And it is this view that adopts a more radical view of tomorrow’s roads. “Do we need crash barriers?,” he asked. “Can we remove the central reservation, the hard shoulders and the verges?”

This concept reduces the number of lanes by taking advantage of autonomous vehicle capabilities. In Innovia’s view, there might only be one car lane and one freight lane in each direction. With this concept, the ‘real estate’ made available from a narrower road could be reforested, providing an element of carbon sequestration.

The condition of the road surface might be monitored by drone vehicles, but regular traffic could also play a part. “Cars could report road conditions,” Dr Mukund contended. “If sensors on cars see a pothole forming, the V2V network could tell following vehicles to move over by a few inches to avoid it.” And it is suggesting that drone vehicles could use prefabricated elements to repair damage.

The frugal view sees technology in vehicles enabling road trains. Not only does this approach mean more vehicles can use less road, the road train can run at the speed where the constituent vehicles have the best energy efficiency. And, because of the intelligence integrated into vehicles, there will be no need for street lighting.

“A road train will bring more capacity,” Milton explained, “as well as energy savings through no road signs or lighting.”

It won’t happen overnight

Ambitious projects like The Ray don’t achieve their goals overnight and may be some years – perhaps 2040 – before the vision is complete.

Milton concluded: “The Ray is an exciting project. It is a unique outdoor experiment that seeks to find the best solutions and everyone is keen to progress quickly, so we have looked both at early wins and also the vision of the future.”