Could a sustainable highways project in the USA provide a blueprint for transport and infrastructure planners across Europe? John Catling, CEO at WheelRight, a leading automotive technology business based in the UK, outlines how this could work in practice.

Although the term ‘smart city’ has only recently entered the public consciousness, the core concept behind it has been in practice for decades. Indeed, there are examples of ‘big data’ and diagnostic techniques which have been used to manage large urban areas since the late sixties. In Los Angeles, California, for example, a research team called The Community Analysis Bureau produced an exhaustive report in 1974, which gave a thorough insight into poverty hotspots across the LA metropolitan area.

It wasn’t until much more recently, however, that we’ve had access to the appropriate sensory and analytical technology to help us fully realise the potential of the smart city.Click To Tweet

It wasn’t until much more recently, however, that we’ve had access to the appropriate sensory and analytical technology to help us fully realise the potential of the smart city. Singapore, for example, has introduced a series of mobility policies as part of its Smart Nation initiative. This uses data for everything, from traffic-calming measures to understanding parts of the city in which the populace is most prone to take up smoking.

Boston, Massachusetts, has taken this concept one step further. The business practices of Martin Walsh, the city mayor, show how far things have come since the days of manual data crunching and reams of graph data. Walsh uses a real-time, dynamic dashboard to calculate a range of KPIs for the city’s public services, from helpline calls to the number of potholes filled in that day. The initiative, which was rolled out in October 2015, also includes a ‘CityScore’ figure, comprising 24 separate measures. This includes crime levels, WiFi speed and access to grants – to provide an overall ‘wellbeing’ score for each district.

Indeed, North America’s track record in connected infrastructure is incredibly impressive. Another such example is The Ray, an 18 mile stretch of highway in Georgia, US, which is offering a compelling model for transport planners and policymakers.

The highway of the future

Initially established as a charitable foundation, The Ray provides inspiring insight into how the highways of tomorrow could look. Initiatives that currently line the Alabama to Georgia route include electric vehicle charging points, leading-edge solar roadway technology and WheelRight’s own drive-over tyre monitoring technology which measures cars’ tread depths and tyre pressures within seconds.

The genesis of The Ray came as a memorial roadway for its namesake, Ray C. Anderson. A prominent business leader in the region, Anderson achieved recognition for his management of Interface, a multinational carpeting manufacturer which committed to cutting pollution and reducing its use of fossil fuels.

In recognition of his commitment to sustainability, a section of Georgia’s I-85 highway was renamed The Ray in his honour in 2014. To ensure that the road tied in with Anderson’s green credentials, his family decided that the route should become a living project for greener, safer freeways.

Throughout the next few years, the highway’s scope will expand to include solar panels, sustainable landscaping and Internet of Things (IoT) technology. All of which will go further to making this a smart, supportable and revenue-generating roadmap for a greener future – and a project from which policymakers in other countries can learn.

A drive-over solution

At the end of last year, The Ray introduced WheelRight’s drive over technology to the project.

For the infrastructure planner of the future, technology such as the kind in place on The Ray will play a pivotal role in the development of connected cities. The ability to monitor the tyre condition of cars and public transport vehicles, especially in areas of heavy urban congestion – such as London – could play a significant role in easing traffic, as well as boosting fuel efficiency and reducing road accidents.

While tyre pressure is taken as the vehicle traverses the road embedded sensor plates, tread depth is measured via multi-image technology and imaging software. The tech found that one in 50 cars running on US roads has at least one under-inflated tyre, with 7.2% of cars running below the legal tread depth – that equates to 18.8m vehicles in the US running on ‘bald tyres.’

WheelRight’s cloud-based technology is just one of a new generation of applications that support the use of IoT in transport infrastructures. Collecting real-time data to check the tyre condition of vehicles in a city is a big data opportunity. By driving over the road-embedded sensors, vehicles’ tyre data is sent to the cloud, and then onto a mobile phone, laptop or server. Such information is particularly valuable for public transport operators, allowing them to keep a close eye on the tyre quality of their fleet.

Our vision for the future is a network of systems in the bus depots and petrol forecourts in major cities around the world, ensuring vehicles on the road are driving with properly-inflated, safe and compliant tyres. Adopting smart technology gives city planners a rich bank of data at their fingertips – key to making smart city values a reality.

The route ahead

Inspiring projects such as The Ray provide policy makers and transport planners with an exciting vision of the future. Integrated drive-over tyre pressure monitoring technology, solar road panels and electric vehicle charging points are just the beginning of the technological revolution that will sweep our roads.

The question now facing European governments is ‘what can we do replicate this success?’ As demonstrated by the original impetus behind The Ray, the key to successful implementation of smart projects is a clear, singular vision. In The Ray’s case, that was the creation of a zero carbon, zero deaths, zero waste and zero impact highway.

A fundamental driving force behind the success of The Ray is local government enterprise support, including Interface, the Georgia Conservancy and Georgia Tech’s School of Architecture. This has given The Ray valuable momentum. The Georgia Department of Transportation played a similarly vital role, leading the roll-out of innovative new technologies to improve safety and sustainability.

For urban planners and policymakers across the UK and Europe, this should provide a compelling example. Projects such as The Ray need committed and consistent leadership, alongside the proactive support of highways agencies and engagement with leading businesses and tech providers.

New technology will play a huge role in determining the successful roll-out of smart cities, and it is crucial that officials are looking now at how they begin to integrate such technology into their planning