“Where We’re Going, We *Still* Need Roads”
It’s all very well to have smart cars, but it’s better if they have smart roads to drive on. At least that’s what Integrated Roadways believes, as the startup eyes an opportunity to pave a way for itself across the highways of America.
Nearly half of all roadways in the United States are in need of investment, even for things as basic as resurfacing, yet public agencies are constantly asserting their inability to pay, let alone invest in tech studded quality surfaces to improve the driving experience. What to do?
Integrated Roadways believes it has a solution, in the form of commercial technology embedded inside public infrastructure which can be monetized to pay for itself.
“It occurred to us that the largest and most profitable companies in the world today make a chunk of their revenue by monetizing data about traffic. At the same time, other large corporations are dependent on access to public infrastructure. For example, if Amazon couldn’t make deliveries on public roadways it would be out of business. Uber, Lyft, Tesla, Waymo, they’re all completely dependent on public infrastructure,” said Tim Sylvester, CEO of Integrated Roadways.
Sylvester believes data generated from all parts of a “smart city” could be monetized to pay for public services and take the increasing burden off the taxpayer, allowing for major infrastructure upgrades both on and off the road.
While that sounds too good to be true, Sylvester maintains it isn’t. “Over the last couple of decades, we have made wise investments in basic infrastructure for digital services that have enabled all of these incredible and fascinating developments to happen and there’s no reason why we can’t do the same in the world of public infrastructure to bring the next generation of benefits,” he said.
Sensors in Slabs
Precast pavement has been in use worldwide for over 80 years and has been endorsed and embraced by the US Department of Transportation for over twenty years as a better paving system that builds faster and costs less to own over its lifespan. What Integrated Roadways is doing is getting slabs of precast pavement designed with off-the-shelf technology baked into them. This technology includes a fiber-optic sensing system, as well as wired and wireless networking elements which Sylvester describes as “completely standard power, telecom, and IT products.”
Sensors, processors, antennae and other technology are housed in a cylinder inside the slab itself while a fiber optic strain mesh laminated to the slab’s reinforcement acts as a sort of trackpad able to identify vehicle tire positions. Routers inside the slabs then connect to slab neighbors and send information to Linear Data Centers alongside highway. The slabs are also connected using a series of dowels extended into adjacent conduits, then filled with grout through grout ports for a solid connection.
The fiber-optic sensing system has been used for oil and gas pipeline monitoring for decades to detect the pressure in the pipes. In the slabs, however, the system detects the pressure imposed by the vehicle, providing extremely high-resolution traffic data, not only about how many cars are on a particular road, but also where they are in relation to the roadway.
Road to Riches
Integrated Roadways says the cost of its smart slabs averages about 4 million dollars per lane per mile. America’s current national rate is about 2 million dollars per lane per mile for a comparable concrete pavement. In the past 15 years, however, the cost of concrete paving has doubled and is projected to double again over the next 15 years while the cost of precast paving has fallen 90%, so Sylvester expects Integrated Roadways’ product will be the same if not cheaper than traditional paving in the next few years.
Meanwhile, the company says the tech smarts in its slabs can actually make money by selling anonymized demographic information to advertisers, property developers, insurance companies and safety organizations.
“We see ourselves as a data collection facility,” said Sylvester, outlining the plethora of potential uses for that data, from helping real estate developers know where and what to build to business operators knowing where to set up shop based on traffic levels and demographics. Is it fair to collect people’s data while they drive along, unsuspecting? Sylvester says it’s not as creepy as it sounds, noting the company is compliant with all existing public standards, statutes and regulations. The company also doesn’t collect any personally identifiable information from people using the roads.
The first section of road Integrated Roadways has built out in a public right of way is in Brighton Boulevard in Denver, Colorado, in an area Sylvester says has “really high traffic.” Next year, the company is slated to build another half mile installation on US 285 in Colorado by a town called Fairplay, encompassing a curve called Red Hill Pass, one of the most dangerous curves in Colorado’s inventory. With a 10x accident and fatality rate compared with the national average, people have been known to drive off the road and not be discovered for hours or even days.
“It’s a gruesome situation and so we’re implementing smart pavement there in order to be able to see the trajectory of the vehicles as they drive along this dangerous curve and if somebody leaves the roadway, we can automatically call emergency services to come out to lend their aid to them.”
Being able to position the vehicle relative to the roadway and other vehicles will also come in handy in the era of autonomous driving, which Sylvester admits is a “big opportunity” the firm plans to work on in the next phase of its development.
But can it scale?
Can the company – which currently only has 12 employees- scale enough to make its mark on the American highway infrastructure? Sylvester says it can because it was designed that way.
“We intend to produce with local facilities everywhere we go,” he said noting that there are about 20 precast production facilities in any given state – around 1000 in the U.S. – and each of them would be able to crank out miles of Integrate Roadways pavement per month. “There’s no reason why wouldn’t be able to crank out smart pavement slabs every 30 seconds as long as we have the proper crew, the supply chain and the equipment in place to do so.”
Sylvester said he’s seen people go from skeptical to evangelical about connected roads in just four short years.
“This is something we believe is a massive step forward for humanity. Our needs have evolved and it’s time for our public infrastructure to evolve as well.”