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High-Tech Roads Are Powering Electric Cars, Sensors and More

Two projects in Georgia and New York are exploring new technologies which embed power generation, computing and more into paving, opening up this right-of-way space to accommodate solar panels and smart city sensors.

Two cars on a roadway.
The Curiosity Lab in Peachtree Corners, Ga., has installed solar power generation panels into the paving surface.
Submitted Photo/ Curiosity Lab
These days, road and sidewalk surfaces can accommodate much more than driving or walking. New technologies are using these surfaces to embed power generation, communication and other capabilities.

The Curiosity Lab in Peachtree Corners, Ga., a site for testing next-gen transportation technologies, is placing solar power panels into a roadway. The panels will generate the electricity to power an electric car charging port.

And in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., Uncharted Power is installing its “smart” pavers in a small section of sidewalks and streets. The pavers are embedded with electricity and computing technology to serve as sensors or communication capabilities to create “uniform, modular bridging,” said Jessica O. Matthews, CEO of Uncharted Power.

“Each one of those pavers essentially doubles as a nano-data center. And when they’re installed, it becomes a mesh network of data centers that provides edge cloud services, so that you’re not only collecting this data in real time, you’re also processing and managing this data in real time using the infrastructure in the panels themselves,” Matthews explained, speaking with Government Technology in late October.

The project in Poughkeepsie will be a pilot project to explore the technology and its capabilities, much like the solar highway project in Georgia.

That project will outfit the solar generation panels in the autonomous vehicle testing lane at the Curiosity Lab. The Lab is partnering with The Ray, an 18-mile stretch of Interstate 85 in southern Georgia which functions as a testbed for next-generation highway technologies.

“We hope to provide data on durability, energy generation and prove that the technology could be expanded to other larger installations,” said Greg Ramsey, director of public works at the city of Peachtree Corners.

The panels, made by Wattway, are installed on the surface of the AV testing travel lane and are connected to a nearby control cabinet. The power generated energizes an adjacent electric vehicle charging station.

“Our system should produce more than 1,000 kilowatt-hours of electricity annually for a Level 2 EV charger at no cost to EV motorists, and the charger includes a storage system for nighttime charging,” Ramsey explained.

“One of our goals would be to prove this technology works well enough to expand the project and eventually power more off-grid infrastructure across the city,” he added. “We would like to pursue additional installations on other lanes, sidewalks, parking areas, etc.”

The growth of electric vehicles will call on more creative and sustainable sources of power generation, said officials behind The Ray. 

“Our entire organization, with the help of key corporate partners, is dedicated to advancing the future of transportation infrastructure around the world,” said Harriet Anderson Langford, founder and president of The Ray, in a statement. “We have had lots of success using roadways, as well as unused interstate right-of-way, to generate massive amounts of electricity for EVs.”

Companies like Solar Roadways in Idaho have been developing solar power technologies for roadways going back nearly a decade.

In Poughkeepsie, the smart paving project will be installed on about a quarter-mile section within the city’s Innovation District, to gain an understanding of how the technology performs.

“And once we do that we’re going to be looking at really smart things we can deploy across the city of Poughkeepsie,” said Matthews. “We won’t do every road and every sidewalk. But we’re going to be looking at the things we can do in the key points of the city that will provide the most value to the community.”

The technology can be used to deploy power, monitor water pipes and deliver broadband. The system includes a physical and digital product. It also incorporates pavers made from a fiber-reinforced polymer, which Matthews said is more durable than concrete and asphalt, and more sustainable to produce.

“Inside each of these pavers we have our technology,” said Matthews. “You have power delivery cables, you have sensors, and you have single-board computers — little chips, which are like the brain.”

The pavers also have Ethernet and fiber-optic technology built into them, meaning that they're capable of power delivery, processing and connectivity at the edge.

“This is a huge deal and the city is extremely proud of this partnership and of being selected to host this pilot,” said Marc Nelson, city administrator for Poughkeepsie.

Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Yreka, Calif.