Smart roads, wireless EV charging, and the future of American infrastructure
The United States’ road infrastructure is in rough shape. To help address the problem, the Biden administration passed the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act last fall, which will provide $100 billion in additional funding for the country’s crumbling roads and bridges over the next five years.
But federal funds are often slow to make their way to the states that need them. As such, many in the private sector have decided now is the time to step up. One such actor is Tim Sylvester, the founder, CEO, and CTO of Integrated Roadways, a Kansas City-based company that aims to change the way America thinks about transport, smart cities, EV charging, and sustainability.
Integrated Roadways has developed what they call Smart Pavement, modular slabs of precast concrete with sensors and other passive roadway technology embedded in them. Roadways built from this technology could completely change how and even what people drive. The slabs have the ability to anonymously identify traffic movement, detect accidents, and even pinpoint what make and model of car passes over them — all without cameras.
The pavement is designed from the start to be upgradeable, much like installing apps on a smartphone. Serving as a network for connected, electric and autonomous vehicles, it enables wireless EV charging capability, so EVs can charge as they’re being driven. It also provides real-time navigation and telemetry to support autonomous vehicles. It’s an encouraging proposition at a time when the country is poised to rebuild its roads anyway.
Aside from the safety benefits and increased incentives for EV adoption the technology represents, it also could change how roads are paid for, creating a system of road maintenance funded by the very traffic that requires it.
Interesting Engineering recently had the chance to talk with Tim to get his take on how the future of America’s infrastructure needs to be smart — in every sense of the word.
The following conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and flow.
Interesting Engineering: What brought you to this intersection of infrastructure and technology?
Tim Sylvester: It was obvious to me, even in the late 90s, that eventually, there would be a convergence between networks and roadways for connected, electric and autonomous vehicles.
These vehicles need services in the same way our smartphones or our computers do. Every data-driven service is enabled by a network. The perfect place to put that network is in the road. That’s where you can get position details about vehicles, vehicle data, you can wirelessly charge EVs, support navigation. There are so many capabilities that are possible.
IE: Why is now the time for the United States to be investing in smart infrastructure?
We need to replace half of our road inventory at the same time that connected, electric and autonomous vehicles are coming to market. The timing is absolutely perfect. We know that, over the next 50 years, advanced mobility is going to replace traditional mobility. Why shouldn’t smart roads replace traditional roads? We can give ourselves brand new public infrastructure that meets the needs of the emerging generations.
"[Traffic] signals can actually modify their behavior based on the traffic instead of traffic modifying its behavior based on the signals."
IE: Is the U.S. behind the curve here? Is this something we should have done years ago?
If we’re late to the game, we’re in good company, because no one else is doing this. Should we have done it a long time ago? Maybe, but we’re still leading the pack. One way of looking at it is that we allowed our inventory of roadways to reach its end of life, so that, by the time these vehicles were starting to reach the market we would have this immediate value to replacing roadways. If we’d done this 20 years ago, vehicles wouldn’t have been ready. Being too early is often as bad as being too late.
IE: Tell us about Smart Pavement. What are its benefits?
One of the downsides of smartphones is that driver distractions have been increasing. That means fatalities have been increasing as well. One benefit of building intelligence into the roadways is that we can reduce the impact of driver inattention by supporting interactive infrastructure. One big initiative is connected intersections with dynamic signal-timing.
We’ve even heard people like Elon Musk talk about the elimination of intersection signal systems with autonomous vehicles. Whether or not that happens, we’ll find out. But what we can do is make the traffic signals aware of the traffic patterns that are approaching them, and even beyond the horizon, where cameras can’t see — around the corners. The signals can actually modify their behavior based on the traffic instead of traffic modifying its behavior based on the signals.
That is going to reduce congestion, reduce idling, fuel consumption, and wasted energy. We’re advancing our society and our technologies to the point where gains become fractional and marginal. Just saving a small amount of fuel or energy for every vehicle multiplied across every vehicle means huge savings. The only way to get those savings at the edges is by making these systems intelligent and interoperable. That requires interaction, data collection, and networking.
IE: How long do these smart road slabs last? What kind of a time frame are we looking at?
The reason we have asphalt is that everybody ran out of money to build roads properly. So, they just started laying a skin of asphalt over the old, broken road, and then they peel that skin off and put a new one on whenever it goes bad. It’s like painting a broken foundation. It doesn’t solve the problem, it just hides it.
Precast concrete has been in use for more than 100 years. Not as a concept, I mean as the actual pavement. There are examples of precast pavement that have been in use for 100 years. The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) did 20 years of studies [as part of] the Highways for LIFE program that was run by Sam Tyson. Nearly every state did at least one demonstration of precast, and the FHWA said, ‘This stuff is going to last 100 years. But if we say that, no one is going to believe us, so we’ll call it 50 plus.’ A traditional asphalt roadway is going to last at most 15 years. The precast is going to last 50 to 100. Easily four times as long.
IE: It’s also 95 percent less costly. How do you achieve that?
Those numbers are on the installation side. The delivery of pavement to the job site. Traditional construction is heavily manual. You’ve got the jokes about work crews leaning on shovels while two people are working — that’s because there are a lot of specialized, manual tasks that only need to occur occasionally. So, you end up with a crew of a dozen people where two of them are working at a time.
We do all of that specialized labor in the factory. It’s more efficient at the job site because all you have to do is pick things up and put them down. That means you can build a road at 10 feet every five minutes. It’s like a LEGO kit that's delivered to the job site. You don’t need all of that specialized labor on site. You install in half the time and you only use about 1/20th the amount of labor.
IE: You say the tech in the road slab is accessible. How is that possible with precast concrete?
There are really three aspects of the ease of repair. If the road itself breaks, pop it out and replace it. Most of the tech in the roadway is passive. It’s not full of active electronics that are going to wear out. The active components are pushed off to the side in the roadside control center where they can be easily serviced without shutting down the road. The third part is the active electronics that are in the roadway, like additional sensor packages and antennas.
There are all kinds of stuff that would make sense to put in the road if you can access it. So, we designed expansion ports. Those are like expansion ports in your computer. If you get something new, you can plug it in. Because it’s in the road, it has to be hidden, protected, so we have four locations in every slab that are basically the size of a tall soda can. If you can take a piece of technology and fit it in one of those 12-ounce cans, you can drop it in the road, hide it, but you can [also] bore out that location if and when you need to.
IE: You've tested your Smart Pavement in Colorado. What was that experience like? What lessons have you learned?
You need a test installation for new hardware. A development platform. In cooperation with the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT), the city of Denver, and others, we got permission to build a demo section of Smart Pavement in Denver. It’s still up and running and will be for the next 50 years or so. We used that as our software development location so we could build all of these tools and capabilities. We needed to make sure the traffic features would work. Something that’s going to go in the road needs to survive 50 million vehicle events. It’s an order of magnitude more intensive than normal tech.
"Because we can see all the vehicles on the road, we can see when a vehicle leaves the road."
To this day, we’re collecting data on it, using it to build analytics tools, data visualizations, and other capabilities. We continue to deploy new assets. Recently, we turned on the capability to determine the make, model, and production year of each individual vehicle. This isn’t through cameras. This is through the sensors in the road. The nice thing about that is, we’re not taking any pictures, we don’t have drivers’ faces, no license plates. It’s anonymous.
IE: What about privacy concerns? We see examples of this in products of the Internet of Things all the time, malicious actors exploiting users' data. What kind of a risk are we looking at in this situation?
We’ve designed our Smart Pavement system to innately respect privacy. Long before I was a business owner, I was a consumer of tech. I had and have the exact same frustrations and concerns. That’s why, in every contract we sign, we insist that the owner, the public agency, prohibits us from collecting personally-identifiable information through the road. We demand they prevent us from doing that, so that, even if 10-15 years down the road, whoever is running the company is legally incapable of collecting that kind of data.
There are services that have to know who you are so that they can serve you. Those are things like wireless charging, navigation for autonomy, communication services. Those aren’t really any different than our smartphones. In those instances, that’s 100 percent opt-in. Nobody is going to get those enhanced services without saying they want it and that it’s ok to use their data for the operation of the system.
Beyond that, we use cameras to validate that the system is working on the development site. We don’t use them for the actual operation of the system or for commercial implementation.
IE: This kind of information could very well save lives out on the road. Will you be in liaison with public institutions to make this data available to medical services or the police?
The idea is that, because we can see all the vehicles on the road, we can see when a vehicle leaves the road [or] when a vehicle is going in the wrong direction. [If there is an accident] all we need to know in order to get help for that person is where it was and when it happened.
I had a friend in high school who was in a fatal collision in the early morning hours one day, and this was before people had cell phones all over. People said, ‘If we had just known about the accident sooner.’ I’m not alone - these collisions happen 30,000 times every year. There are many people that five minutes would’ve made the difference between life and death for. Whatever we can do to cut out that delay of someone realizing there has been a problem, it just adds so much value to our society to be able to do that.
IE: What are your thoughts on the Biden administration’s recent passing of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act?
Our approach is programs, not projects. The amount of need is so immense that it doesn’t make sense to do one project. What makes sense is to set up a program to do a lot of improvements over time. Federal funding takes several years to arrive at the destination, and even when they get it, it takes several years to spend. We spend 250 billion dollars a year on public roadways, including highways, interstates, streets. We have 8 trillion dollars worth of unfunded improvement needs out there. Increasing that 250 billion to 300 billion for five years is not going to address that backlog.
"We have all this lithium and cobalt, copper and rare earth materials that can’t be recovered. Is that really the sensible sustainability choice?"
It’s not possible for federal funding programs to cover that amount of demand. Infrastructure companies, whether it's fiber-networking, cell-networking, and other types of commercial services, are already planning on investing more than 8 trillion dollars in infrastructure in the United States.
Why not steer that investment into the delivery of brand new roads that make it much more efficient to build networks, make those networks more valuable and capable, and access all the private funding in private capital markets? When we’re delivering network services that have commercial value, let’s lean on the commercial markets to pay for all these things because they’re the ones getting the benefits.
IE: Your company claims this road tech will be able to provide navigation and telemetry to autonomous vehicles. Do you think an increase in this kind of infrastructure could expedite the development and adoption of those kinds of vehicles?
Absolutely. It’s not the entire goal, but it’s certainly part of the goal. People have this crazy idea that autonomous vehicles need to be independent. But our computers and smartphones aren't. They rely on networks. We need networks for these things. The idea that the vehicle needs to be independent means you have 80,000 dollars worth of equipment in the car just to figure out where it is. We know where it is — it’s on the road. The geometry of the roadway doesn’t change rapidly. If the vehicle positioning is built into the road instead of the car, the car is cheaper, it’s lighter, it has less equipment.
When one of these cars that is chock-full of computer equipment gets totaled in a collision, now we have two tons of electronic waste, we have all this lithium and cobalt, copper, and rare earth materials that can’t be recovered. Is that really the sensible sustainability choice?
Take the tech out of the car, put it in a place where 30,000 vehicles can use the same equipment instead of 30,000 vehicles needing their own equipment. In that situation, the only thing a car needs to figure out is what it’s going to do in the next one-thousandth of a second. What control inputs does it need for that instead of constantly computing for its location and the location of everyone else?
IE: In the future, you’d like to add snow and ice-melting functionality and wireless EV charging to your smart slabs. How far off is that future? What stands in the way of developing and implementing those kinds of features?
Wireless EV charging is happening now. My view is that recreating the gas-station model for plug-in charging isn’t the best solution. Putting it in the road is a better solution. It’s not the only solution. You need a lot of choices. We need plug charging in some situations but we need wireless charging in more situations.
Most EVs have been adopted by relatively well-off suburbanites who have their own garage and who can afford to put their plug where they want it. But the majority of humanity does not live in a single-family home with their own garage. Maybe they rent that home, and they can’t afford or get their landlord to install a charger.
Let’s think about the commercial fleets. If you have a bus that needs to circulate in that area, instead of taking it out of service and plugging it in for a few hours, why not charge it as it is driving? If you are doing shipping and your driver can only drive for ten hours a day, why should they stop every four hours and charge for two hours and end up wasting a big chunk of the day on charging the truck?
Building wireless charging into interstates allows the commercial adoption of EVs. Building it into urban streets allows the urban adoption of EVs. Do you really need a battery that will take you 400 miles if you have a section of wireless charging for every mile of roadway? If your range is off of an upgraded roadway, then suddenly, you don’t have range anxiety.
You can have a smaller battery. That means using less lithium, less cobalt, and less copper. Your vehicle is lighter, it’s cheaper. The optimization that’s possible from charging in the roadway extends to every single dimension of that vehicle.
The point here is that people focus on the vehicle because that’s easy. Building infrastructure is hard, it takes a long time, it’s very expensive, and there are a lot of red tapes. Most companies would prefer to avoid working with the government as much as they can. The reality is that half our roadways need to be replaced. There is no good solution for that unless we make our roads smart and make them pay for themselves. Sometimes you have to do the hard work.