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'The Ray': The Smartest Road in the U.S. is Hidden Away in Rural Georgia

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【Summary】The Ray is a nonprofit foundation that is looking to make transportation safer and cleaner in the United States, one small patch of road at a time. We got a look at The Ray and the foundation's work during a press trip with automaker Kia. The South Korean automaker has a large presence in Georgia.

Original Vineeth Joel Patel    Jul 22, 2018 9:20 AM PT
'The Ray': The Smartest Road in the U.S. is Hidden Away in Rural Georgia
author: Vineeth Joel Patel   

Electric and autonomous vehicles are the main focal points of the automotive industry at the moment. Automakers and technology companies are currently working on ways to make vehicles cleaner and smarter. It hasn't been easy for alternatively powered vehicles, but they're slowly starting to gain recognition for being better forms of transportation than regular gasoline-powered cars. 


Now that electric vehicles have caught on, automakers and companies have turned towards revolutionizing the trucking industry by introducing all-electric semi-trucks. No one drives as much as truckers, which makes introducing electric semi-trucks a smart decision that could drastically make transporting goods more efficient. 


With the introduction of electric vehicles, companies have come out and introduced charging stations. EVs need to get juice and finding new, innovative ways to deliver that power is crucial. Some companies have even started to develop wireless charging technology to make the charging process easier. 


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There has been a lot of development with vehicles when it comes to improving efficiency, but there isn't a lot of thought going into the physical roads that we drive on. There are millions of miles of roads in the United States and all of them are relatively the same – black asphalt that sits idly by, allowing vehicles to drive on them 24 hours a day seven days a week. 


A nonprofit foundation called The Ray is looking to change that. The Georgia based foundation has created one of the smartest roads in the United States. Unfortunately, few have heard about the piece of tarmac along Interstate 85, as it's tucked out of sight, hidden away from drivers. That's a shame, as the foundation's work is paving the way forward for the future. 


We got a look at The Ray and the foundation's work during a press trip with Kia. The South Korean automaker has a large presence in Georgia, as its massive 2,200-acre facility in West Point, Ga. is located roughly 10 minutes away from The Ray. Kia, along with numerous other companies, is one of The Ray's partners. With the South Korean automaker's recent push towards electric vehicles, the decision to partner with a nonprofit like The Ray is a move that we expect a lot of other automotive brands will make. 


Kia is set to come out with a 48-volt diesel hybrid powertrain before the end of the year. The automaker also has five electrified vehicles – the Niro, Niro Plug-In Hybrid, Optima Hybrid, Optima Plug-In Hybrid, and Soul EV – to its name and will be expanding on that figure in the near future. In addition to adding more electrified offerings, the automaker is also working on new technology to make its EVs more attractive, like a wireless charging system. 


Having never heard of the foundation or the stretch of road itself, I was immediately taken aback by the level of technology and innovation that I saw and interacted with. 


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What Is The Ray?


First and foremost, The Ray is a nonprofit foundation that was founded to raise awareness and help technologies come to scale. The foundation is a P4, which stands for the public, the private sector, partnership, and philanthropy.

 

In addition to being a nonprofit foundation, The Ray is a physical location. The term The Ray refers to an 18-mile stretch of road and a rest stop, which is called "The Ray Welcome Center," on Interstate 85 in Georgia. The locations are being used as a "living laboratory" for demonstrating and testing of new transportation technologies. 


The Ray is named after Ray Anderson, the founder and CEO of Interface modular carpet tiles. Later in life, Anderson switched gears to becoming a sustainable manufacturing pioneer. After his death, Anderson left his vast company to his two daughters who wanted to do something for their father and the area where he was from – West Point, Ga. 


The foundation's mission is clear – to make a safe place for companies to test future technologies that will make transportation cleaner. According to Allie Kelly, The Ray's Executive Director, the foundation's goal is much more complicated than that. It's about decarbonizing transportation, while making transportation safer to save lives. It's also about reducing redundancies and wastefulness in the hopes of increasing efficiency and productivity. Those are towering goals, but the bright individuals behind The Ray have put the organization in a good place to not only meet all of its goals, but to exceed them.


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The Ray's PV4EV, a solar-powered vehicle charging station


What Kind Of Automotive Tech Does The Ray Have?


Over the course of a few hours, we got a look at all of the innovations that The Ray is currently hosting. The majority of the technology is located at a visitor's center on I-85. Despite being unheard of by the majority of individuals, even by those in the automotive sector, The Ray is one of the smartest areas in the country. 


Back in 2015, The Ray partnered with Kia to make a solar-powered EV charging station. The goal of the partnership was to create a cleaner form of charging for electric vehicles. The solar-powered vehicle-charging station, which is called PV4EV, is a Y-shaped structure with numerous solar panels. The station has spots for two electric cars to get a quick charge from the sun for free. It was the very first of its kind in the area. 


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A closer look at the PV4EV that's sponsored by Kia


The next major collaboration The Ray worked on was with Colas, a French-based company, in 2016. The partnership brought about the first solar road in the United States. The 50 square meter road by Wattaway, a French innovation by Colas, was another first of its kind in the country and does more than just look good. 


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The U.S.' first publicly accessible solar road by Wattway by COLAS


The Georgia's Department of Transportation (DOT) is one of The Ray's partners. Because of the partnership, the little stretch of solar road by Wattaway helps produce power that goes directly to the DOT's grid. According to The Ray, Wattaway's solar road produced 6 MW of power. That juice directly goes into the rest stop's grid to help keep the lights and air conditioning going all day. 


The solar road was an interesting part of The Ray that we had to get more information on. The solar panels on the road are first-gen units that will be replaced with newer, smarter components by the end of the year. The individuals involved with The Ray learned a lot of valuable information with the first-gen parts. 


For one, there's no weight limits. Everything from massive semi trucks to regular passenger cars drive over the solar panels on a daily basis. There's no real number on how many people come every year to the rest stop, but the figure is easily in the tens of millions. Any driver that visits the rest stop, because of the way it's designed, has to travel on top of the solar panels. While some were dislodged and out of place, the majority of them looked to be intact and in good condition. 


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A close-up look at one of Wattway by COLAS' solar panels


The solar panels themselves have an interesting construction. The top surface that rests on top of the panels is made out of crushed glass with a grid embedded on top for traction. The solar panels physically sit on top of the existing road with some help from a healthy slathering of epoxy. 


While placing solar panels onto all of America's roads sounds like a brilliant way to bring some more power to the grid, southern states are the ideal location for the tech, as it's usually warmer, which means more energy storage. It also means that the solar panels won't have to deal with snowplows, which are their worst enemy, and wintery conditions. In Georgia, the state deals with snow with brine. That's not how Michigan, and many other northern states, deal with snow. 


A lot of things still need to be worked out, obviously, but the pilot solar road reveals that there's a lot of things that roads can do in addition to being just asphalt for us to drive on. 


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The Ray's WheelRight system that gives drivers crucial information on their tires


Lastly, the other major piece of tech that The Ray currently has includes a drive-through tire safety station from WheelRight. The tire safety check station helps drivers save fuel, reduce carbon emissions, and improve road safety. According to the Department of Transportation, roughly two billion gallons of fuel are wasted every year because of underinflated tires. While there are no figures on how many accidents are caused by overinflated, underinflated, or bald tires, having tires that are in their optimal condition can drastically alter the way a car performs.  


Unfortunately, a lot of drivers aren't sure of how inflated their tires should be or how much tread depth their tires should have. This could stem from not knowing how to read their tires' sidewall, check their tires' air pressure, or measure their tires' tread depth. WheelRight's tire station takes the hassle out of having to know how to do any of the aforementioned things by giving users an easy-to-read description of their tires' condition in less than 10 seconds. 


WheelRight's tire station provides users with information on their tires' pressure, tread depth, and sidewall damage, all of which are important to ensuring your car is safe on the road. While getting that kind of information is possible for individuals that are have the knowledge to do so, it could be difficult for those that aren't well-versed mechanics. 


Drivers can travel through the company's Tire Pressure Monitoring System at a speed of up to 10 mph. Thanks to a series of technology that measures the number of deflection of radar beams over time and creates a pressure map for the for the tires, the system can obtain all of the aforementioned information.


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John Catling, CEO of WheelRight, demonstrating the information the WheelRight system provides to drivers

After driving through WheelRight's designated system, drivers can use the system's display to receive a clear view of the information. Drivers can also get a print out that displays the information in a form that's easy to take on the go. Users that enjoy getting a readout of how their tires are doing on a regular basis can sign up to receive their information through a text message instead of a piece of paper. 


WheelRight's system in Georgia is different from other ones it has around the world, which can handle semi trucks and provide a different set of information. Those systems can measure vehicle weight to ensure that the machines aren't overloaded. They can also read tire temperature. Systems located in Europe can tell users when to change tires because of weather or wear, too. 


WheelRight wants to continue to grow its network of tire safety inspection systems to other locations in the U.S. and also wants to provide users with more information about their tires. 


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What's In Store For The Future? 


The Ray is an interesting location, because the individuals in charge of the area are always looking towards the future. Sure, there's a bunch of cool technology on The Ray at the moment, but there's no guarantee that it'll stay there for much longer. Stuff that's there now may not be in a few years – that's the beauty of technology and The Ray. 


As of right now, the nonprofit organization is looking into forming more partnerships with other DOTs and universities across the country in the hopes that they'll look at what The Ray is doing and incorporate the technology into their ecosystems. By the sound of things, it looks like a lot of other organizations are interested in getting their hands on the tech. 


Beyond that, The Ray is looking to get new technology that it can showcase, regardless of how small it is or what the tech does. 


For being the smartest and most tech-forward patch of road in the United States, The Ray doesn't get the recognition it deserves. If you're looking to get a peek into the future of transportation, plan a trip to The Ray in Georgia. It's one of the only places in the United States where you'll get a peek into the future of transportation. It's also where innovative, cutting edge technology lives and will continue to do so until cars take to the skies. 

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