Here's what a sustainable highway might look like

The Ray

If you want to see the future of transport in action, you might expect to tour a Silicon Valley research and development lab. But one of the best places to see the future of sustainable transportation might be in the heart of Georgia on an 18-mile stretch of highway I-85, near the city of Lagrange.

That's where the Ray C. Anderson Foundation, which took over the highway several years ago, is transforming the road into a lab pushing green transport to faster development. 

The Georgia-based non-profit was created by Harriet Langford, daughter of the late sustainability champion, who created a legacy of green business leadership at carpet company Interface — a pioneer in materials innovation and reuse. By the time of his death in 2011, Anderson had become an environmentalist. But he failed to leave directions about what to do with his wealth. When Langford and her sister Mary Anne Lanier renamed a slice of Georgia pavement in his honor, they realized putting his name on a dirty highway "didn't feel right." So they repurposed it as a green tech hub. 

A few years later, the highway is nicknamed "the Ray" and the world's top researchers are building on it. GreenBiz contributing writer Jose Fermoso spoke with Langford about her vision of a green tech future. The conversation was edited for clarity and length. 

Jose Fermoso: You didn't have much experience in green tech before the Ray. How'd you start development? 

Harriet Langford: We were smart enough to know who'd be willing to help us make a sustainable highway. We first went to Georgia Tech's College of Architecture, and they produced a blueprint of short- and long-term goals. We found there is a connection in how industry and roads function together to make change — it's an incremental process but can be improved [to speed things up]. 

We then reached out to the Department of Transportation, hired Allie Kelly, who'd worked with the Georgia Conservancy in sustainability, and she ended up as our executive director. We then looked for advisors and got Alan Anderson, a retired Boeing engineer, and John Picard, the architect who'd originally moved my father to change his business. They urged us to work with Innovia Technology in England, a firm working on sustainability. We brought the restorative highway concept and the Georgia Tech study, and they built a process for implementing current tech and stay on top of new research.

Fermoso: Getting government support for these projects is hard. What did you do to get their approval?

Langford: Ally and I went to Sam Wellborn, who is on the board of the Georgia Department of Transportation, and made him understand the importance of being first, to put Georgia on the map for innovation. He helped pass resolutions allowing us to work on the corridor. Having government support got attention from top Europeans, which was important because they are ahead in natural resource research. Our goals were set early on around pollution remediation, wildlife conservation, resource efficiency and ride safety.

Fermoso: Tell me about the work on pollution remediation and the first installation you worked on. 

Langford: We knew we had 150 tons of carbon emitted daily just on our corridor, so we needed to transform the transport infrastructure quickly. The first thing we did was create a visitor's center, off the highway, that could be the beginning of the project. People stop there to use the restroom and rest, and we could help them become acclimated to what's going to happen on the highway. Our first deployment was a "PV for EV," a photovoltaic solar array for fast-charging electric vehicle charging stations that sends excess energy back to the visitor center. It was meant to encourage people to use EVs. 

Fermoso: And around that time, Wattway became involved, whose technology will become the most visible part of the highway in the next year. How did you match up with them? 

Langford: Wattway developed solar panels that can be put on top of the existing surface of roads and have skid-resistant surface. We thought, when roads aren't being covered by cars, why couldn't they generate and store energy? Even if they aren't driven over, a Wattway installation on the interstate shoulder could generate tons in our 250 acres. [To authorities] we say, when electric takes over, gas taxes will go away, [so] how are we helping our department of transportation pay and manage the highway? 

Fermoso: What are some other technologies you're currently working on besides solar roads?

Langford: Wheelwright is a partner that does automatic tire-pressure and thread-depth monitoring that's like a McDonald's drive-through. You drive over sensors, cameras look at your undercarriage, and in five seconds your tread depth and tire pressure is calculated. It's education: under- or over-inflated tires cause deaths. Already 1,200 cars have used it. 

Another is a tech called the Smartstud — for which we own the [intellectual property] — a sensor data network that communicates through blinking lights. Think of smart road reflectors that let you know about wrecks ahead and catch erratic drivers. We're working on the brightness of the LEDs and their color.

We also have a vertical wind turbine system that generates energy under four miles per hour as well reusing discarded tires. [For the latter], we take old tires, mix them into asphalt and make roads 20-30 percent more durable while repelling water down and out versus splashing back up with concrete. 

We're even looking at using drones for air pollution monitoring system and first response.

[Learn more about the Ray and sustainable transportation technologies at VERGE 17, Sept. 19-21 in Santa Clara, California.]

Fermoso: Do you have any deals in the works with car companies working on self-driving?

Langford: Autonomous is coming, and we want to be the first that have the right conditions to help them. Kia was the first to give us a donation to do the PV to EV, so I'll give them a thumbs up because they've funded that. We've talked to Ford, but they're quiet about letting us know what's going on. 

Fermoso: The president recently pulled the United States out of the Paris Agreement. What did you think? 

Langford: Ray Anderson always said industries will lead in sustainability efforts and government will follow. This is exactly what has transpired, so we will lean on the private business sector to lead, and government will follow. The president pulling out of the Paris Agreement should not stop our advancements in sustainability. 

Fermoso: The foundation is funding most of the Ray. What does your budget look like?

Langford: Everything is expensive. I can't stress that enough. We're working with the State Department and federal grants are available. But we're committed, whether it's with corporate partners or public. We've used green bond financing. But when you hear of the other crazy things we're thinking, we couldn't begin to price this. We'll have wireless dynamic EV charging and God knows what that's going to cost.

Fermoso: But that's in the future. What are you spending on the project today? 

Langford: We're averaging about $1 million a year. That's the commitment. But moving forward we will require funding, federal and private. And the cost of things will come down. Scaling brings prices down. 

Fermoso: What is your emotional state after working on this for five years?

Langford: It's emotionally painful some days but the early support made the transition sustainable. I knew nothing about transportation. Had no clue. But with advisers and bright minds, we're going to make it happen. I encourage others who want to do this to be bold, to challenge themselves and the state, and to work with the U.S. Department of Transportation.