Technology hits the road

In our data driven worlds, developers are integrating tech into our infrastructure. One company in Kansas City, Missouri, is bringing data to the roadways.


In our data-driven world, developers are integrating tech into our infrastructure, and one company in Kansas City, Missouri, is bringing data to the roadways.

Here's a look.

Roads are horribly expensive, and everyone just kind of assumes that they will exist and that we can use them for free.

There is no political willpower to resolve that using traditional solutions of taxes and tolls.

So we thought, well, what if we treated the transportation network like the Internet or a cellular network and used it as a platform for new services that provide new value and new features that people actually will pay for?

It's hard to believe, but Tim Sylvester has spent nearly half of his 33 years nurturing this idea, blending a background in construction work with a degree in electrical engineering.

Roads, he likes to point out, were our earliest networks, so why not put them to creative use today?

The electronics, he says, aren't all that complicated.

Basically, we're taking the guts of a tablet PC or a smartphone and putting them into big prefabricated blocks of concrete.

Test sections, like this one installed on the UMKC campus and another on 1-35 south of Kansas City, seem to prove that these precut panels do go together quickly and efficiently.

But the marriage of infrastructure and I.T.

is still a hard sell.

You know, software, you can just build and you can iterate.

You know, there's this whole sort of like, 'Move fast and fail fast and change something.'

Well, you don't necessarily want to fail fast when you're putting in a stretch of highway.

If anyone's aware of that, it's this man.

MoDOT engineer Tom Blair heads up the Road to Tomorrow Committee, charged with reimagining the 250-mile stretch of I-70 that crosses Missouri.

The work his team does here every day might merge nicely with concepts he's being pitched about smart roads and the Internet of Things.

Because, think, if the highway's always communicating to the vehicle, the vehicle always is able to communicate what the speed limit at this point in time is or what the message is that's most important -- the travel time, accidents ahead, right lane closed, left lane closed.

So no longer do you have to really look for, every so many miles, that sign on the side of the road or hope it's there to tell me what's happening ahead of me.

Smart Highways specifically is focused right now on getting that built into the highway, where my Internet of Things could simply be as much as strapping some kind of small device to our existing signs up and down the road.

So, literally, I could have somebody come in, I could partner with an Internet of Things broker and say, 'Here's what we have.

How much would you pay for if we gave you access to this, and here's some criteria you have to meet?'

The ideas Blair calls his Level 4s are all over the map.

They range from selling licenses to speed, modestly, to shifting trucks onto trains so drivers can grab their federally mandated sleep, even alternative modes like Elon Musk's proposed Hyperloop.

Basically, if it might generate revenue, it's worth a look.

But as it turns out, the prime mover might be the accelerated arrival of cars that don't need any drivers.

Seems like it was maybe three years ago that people first started seeing the Google car, and it was kind of this novelty.

And all of a sudden, you've got every major car manufacturer in the world that is experimenting with driverless cars.

You know, it's become more clear that even kind of ride-sharing services like Uber and Lyft, which people don't think of as autonomous car companies, but that's their end game.

Tom Blair wouldn't mind seeing today's distracted drivers become distracted passengers, ones who might even be willing to subscribe to a service that fed their appetite for data.

These business entrepreneurs and innovators that our Road to Tomorrow Team has been talking to look at Interstate 70 and the public right-of-way that we have across our state as a business, and they say, 'Government, you're just providing a service.'

If you give me the opportunity, I could create a business model here that would create a revenue stream.

Which brings us back to Tim Sylvester.

If all goes according to plan, later this spring, a one-mile stretch of Integrated Roadways' Smart Pavement will be installed and tested just past the stadium complex on 1-70.

When I first had the idea, I would have never expected that in the end, what we were really selling was a wireless network.

I never would have expected that the state would be taking us seriously about potentially using this to rebuild I-70.

When old ways don't work, you've got to try something new.

And the interstate system was new at one time, and this is our chance to make it new again.