The following is about infrastructure. Don’t nod off just yet.
To be specific, it’s about pavement — basic, boring road surface. In the six decades since Interstate 70 began to creep across Missouri, how we view pavement hasn’t changed much.
Now meet Tim Sylvester, 33. He sees pavement as an electronic tablet with a concrete touch screen.
Assembled right, it would help navigate rigs with no drivers. If Sylvester can get Missouri officials on board, I-70 might evolve from the cracking corridor it’s long been to what he envisions as the “first smart interstate” in America.
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As the nation’s overall repair needs reach the trillions of dollars, Sylvester and a coming generation of engineers hope to convert dumb old infrastructure into tech-rich traffic lanes, pipelines and utilities boasting brains tuned to the 21st century.
Though his dream is just a proposal needing financial support — mostly private — and plenty of testing, “it would completely change how we look at roads,” he said.
Hard to fathom a freeway that charges your electric car as you drive? Just try imagining a road that snaps together, alerts you to icy spots, knows from built-in sensors what all vehicles are doing and even posts profits without tolls.
This is not your grandpa’s infrastructure.
Consider the extent to which our cars, culture and communications have changed since the 1950s, when Missouri’s first stretches of I-70 ushered in the freeway age.
Now as state planners weigh options for rebuilding I-70 to serve another half century, could it be made to function as smart as today’s phones?
Much of the technology Sylvester cites already exists. That doesn’t mean it will work on a real roadway with real traffic, nor is today’s wizardry guaranteed to defy obsolescence a decade down the road, said Tony Bartolomeo of the American Society of Civil Engineers. But he agreed that making the aging interstate system more high-tech is a worthy concept.
“A lot of interesting things are being done with sensor technology and robotics” to improve travel and prevent infrastructure decay, Bartolomeo said. “I don’t think the public knows about it. …
“They take the infrastructure for granted. It’s mundane.”
While some techies foresee an “Internet of Everything,” others’ eyes roll. Ultraspeed this, wireless that.
And yet for pavement alone, smarter possibilities bend the imagination:
▪ A highway project in the Netherlands uses solar panels and tiny windmills blown by passing trucks to store energy for embedded LED lights, allowing roadways to glow at night.
▪ Scientists are testing “self-healing” concrete designed to produce bacteria to fill cracks, according to the global engineering firm Arup.
▪ Some U.S. bridges are currently dotted with sensors that provide real-time data when the heaviest trucks, possibly illegally overloaded, rumble across.
▪ Drawing boards around the world include pavement threaded with heating elements to melt snow and roadside Wi-Fi to alert motorists to rough patches ahead.
▪ Many futurists expect that by 2030, self-driving cars will be wirelessly talking to one another and to the road itself, promising to make motoring safer, swifter and mistake-free.
To get there from here, “many of the ideas are going to come from the young, entrepreneurial community — people who grew up with technology — and not from large corporations,” said Fred Ellermeier of the Smart Integrated Infrastructure team at Black & Veatch.
Headquartered in Kansas City, Black & Veatch issued a report in September predicting a “Smart Revolution” across the infrastructure spectrum.
Tight budgets and low public demand have kept it from happening, but Ellermeier said the technology exists right now to build roads that can juice up electric cars.
Paying for it
Black & Veatch has been in discussions with Sylvester, founder of a local upstart called Integrated Roadways. The Raytown man also is seeking venture capitalists to help pay for his proposal.
He is scheduled to present his I-70 ideas at an April 1 public meeting of the Missouri Transportation Commission.
He said he’ll ask commissioners to consider a $4 million pilot project that would test his pavement on a short stretch of road that’s not interstate. A tall order, considering the state’s road budget has plunged by half since 2009.
In conceptualizing the smart interstate, Sylvester has spent a lot of time considering how it would be paid for, maybe even more effort than what went into thinking about the stuff that would make it so smart.
Total cost: $3.6 billion, he estimates. Four billion tops.
Sylvester thinks he has hit upon a formula that would require taxpayers to cover just a tenth of that. And once the smart I-70 is up and moving traffic, he envisions state coffers sharing in the profits.
“Commercial fleet operators would buy subscriptions,” just as companies now pay for wireless service, Sylvester said.
Why would they?
If trucks of the future can zip from Kansas City to St. Louis without drivers at the controls, freight firms would save on money paid to truckers and avoid rules that require them to rest.
Individual motorists, including those with electric or self-driving cars, could use the smart highway for free if they wished, Sylvester said.
“Using the interstate without a subscription would be like going to a coffee shop that has Wi-Fi rather than paying for it at home.”
To Mike Burke, one-time Kansas City mayoral candidate and former co-chairman of the Mayor’s Bistate Innovation Team, Sylvester’s plan is “intriguing.”
Beyond offering a roadway that might allow commercial vehicles to ditch their drivers, the corridor’s wireless communications would appeal to stores and restaurants at exits, Burke said.
They might pay to zap ads into approaching cars, he said, “like stop here and get a free Coke with your burger.”
Though not involved in Sylvester’s quest for a public-private partnership, Burke has urged state officials to plan an I-70 friendly to vehicles loaded with future technologies.
“Picture the year 2027.” Burke wrote in a recent op-ed in The Star. “… You hop into your car, all electric, punch in the address of the destination in St. Louis and hit the Travel button. For the next four hours you can relax.”
It may not be everyone’s idea of relaxing — to be in a car that’s speeding up, changing lanes and slowing down on its own — on a crammed I-70, no less.
Comfort levels aside, even geeks see a potentially disastrous downside to a digital freeway.
“People could basically hack the system,” said Sanjay Madria, computer scientist at the Missouri University of Science and Technology in Rolla. “It’s a computer, right?”
A hacker could have quite a time creating traffic tie-ups, sending bogus messages to motorists or even checking a single driver’s planned route to confirm that person’s home is empty and ripe for a burglary.
Madria, who nonetheless sees benefits to high-tech driving, said “security would be a big question.”
There’s a question of practicality too: Self-driving cars already are being tested on roads not outfitted with smart stuff. If Google and others think cars will soon drive themselves safely without infrastructure assisting them, isn’t a smart I-70 redundant?
But Sylvester sees his pavement ideas as providing more of a public benefit that all Missourians eventually can share.
If his pavement works, those autonomous cars of the future won’t need most of the sensors and other wizardry that will drive up their sticker prices to levels only a wealthy few might afford, he said.
Hardly among the wealthy few, Sylvester keeps a cluttered desk at a University of Missouri-Kansas City incubator on Troost Avenue. He graduated from the university in 2012 with a bachelor’s degree in electrical and computer engineering.
His Integrated Roadways, for all its bold ideas, looks like many startups — just a guy in a barren but hip-painted room where other startups share space. He contracts with suppliers on an “as needed” basis.
From a conference room so chilly he needed to grab a jacket, Sylvester sketched on a whiteboard renderings of the gizmos he wants to stuff into I-70 pavement.
One drawing showed a tubular thing with fine wires “like guitar strings” below a prefabricated surface. Think supersensitive bathroom scales able to detect objects as small as jackrabbits in the lane of traffic.
Coils in the pavement would emit magnetic booster shots to keep electric cars charged. Sensors sprinkled throughout would monitor traffic speeds and flow. They would find where salt was eating the surface.
Way out as it sounds, Sylvester smiles when asked if the intelligent interstate will actually do all that he thinks.
“It’s nothing new,” he insisted. “Just a new combination of existing technologies.”
He had just obtained his driver’s license in the 1990s when Sylvester started pondering pavement.
Driving around his parents’ home south of Kansas City, Sylvester was frustrated by traffic delays during highway construction. He wondered why crews continued to use century-old methods: pouring concrete, waiting for it to dry, detouring everybody for months.
His father, Eric, thinks Sylvester’s love of Legos led him to conceive of pieces of highway surface made in a factory, one big square at a time and snapped in place at the worksite.
Integrated Roadways specialized in this kind of prefab pavement. The startup’s biggest break to date was when the Kansas Department of Transportation agreed to pay for a road crew to repave an I-35 test site around Gardner.
Sylvester just had to provide the pavement.
Though the I-35 job proved some sections could be installed in as quick as five minutes, that pavement was plain vanilla compared with what Sylvester is proposing for I-70.
For Black & Veatch, it’s worth hearing the man out and offering software support, Ellermeier said.
A high-aiming, tech-savvy generation often “working in basements and garages … have many of the billion-dollar ideas,” he added. “We see them as part of our business model for the future, not as competitors.”
But do the rest of us even get what they’re saying?
“It’s a leap,” said high-tech advocate Burke, who is 66. “And that’s a generational thing.
“Boomers and older folks look at infrastructure as we’ve always known it. It’s not going to be that way for future generations.”