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You’ve probably heard about the version of the future where everyone zips around in autonomous car pods on hyper-connected smart streets that act as a literal information superhighway–coordinating traffic, keeping a constant vigilant eye on other vehicles, and transforming the hectic experience of driving into a connected, orderly march.

The way our roads will adapt to self-driving cars in the coming years probably won’t be quite as sexy as the disruptive talking roads of futurists’ dreams. Instead, it will involve small, more affordable tweaks to existing infrastructure–like specialized paint for highway markings, and even the highway signs themselves. A new connected-roads venture by the materials manufacturing giant 3M is a glimpse of that slightly less glamorous–but more plausible–future. For the last several months, the St. Paul, Minnesota-based company has partnered with transportation departments around the country to stage tests of its new road products, like pavement marking paint and street signs that can talk to cars.

The Graphics and Safety segment of 3M’s business, which includes the Connected Roads division, brought in nearly 20% of the company’s revenue in 2016. And as autonomous vehicles hit the streets, 3M wants to own the next generation of technology. The company thinks its tech could become a staple on every road in the United States. But first, it will have to convince cash-strapped DOTs that investing in connected roads is a worthwhile way to improve safety as autonomous technology arrives–and, perhaps most importantly, that this new “smart” infrastructure can’t be hacked.

“I’ve seen lots of different innovation around [truly connected infrastructure]–embedding materials, luminescence, connectivity,” says Colin Sultan, a business manager at 3M and the former leader of the Connected Roads group. “That all is extremely expensive. The solutions that we’re talking about are solutions we can actually do very quickly and very inexpensively.”

It All Started With A Snowplow

3M’s Connected Roads group has a surprisingly long history. Formed in 1996 under the name “Intelligent Transportation Systems Project,” it developed a technology designed to help snowplows detect pavement markings even when they’re hidden under inches of snow. Their pavement paint was made with magnetic particles, which helped magnetic sensor-equipped snowplows  “see” the edge of the buried road. The product didn’t find its market, and ended up discontinued after a few years. Meanwhile, the Intelligent Transportation Systems Project continued making sensors before shutting down in 2008.

But in 2017, the group was revived with a new task: to design new types of road markings, signs, and other kinds of connected infrastructure that would make driving in autonomous vehicles safer.

In May, the company launched a pilot program with Michigan’s Department of Transportation. It outfitted about three miles of a roadway with a new kind of pavement marking paint designed specially for car sensors, as well as experimental reflective signs that have embedded information autonomous cars could access as they speed by.

Why would a self-driving car need a special kind of pavement marking? According to Sultan, it’s a vital first step toward connected infrastructure, because GPS isn’t accurate enough to tell a vehicle, down to the inch, where it should position itself on the road. That can have serious implications for safety; the car being off by just a few inches could be the difference between staying in a lane and drifting too far into oncoming traffic. Just as human drivers struggle to see the lines on the road in bad weather, the cameras on which self-driving cars often rely also have a hard time “seeing” normal pavement markings in rain, fog, and snow.

[Photo: courtesy 3M]

Secondly, by studying vehicle sensors, the group’s scientists have learned that they often need more contrast to distinguish between a road marker–the white or yellow lines of a street–and the asphalt. So the group’s pavement markings are very white in the middle with black edging to provide that contrast, along with what’s called “wet reflectivity”–that sparkle quality that helps human drivers see road paint when it’s rainy. Sultan says the company is planning to launch the product next year, and will market it to DOTs as a design solution for self-driving and connected vehicles. Such markings don’t replace sensors that an autonomous car might need. They’re more like a backup system–a “redundancy,” as Sultan explained. Cars wouldn’t require them to drive, but in theory they would make driving safer during bad weather.Alongside the experimental paint, 3M is testing another prototype–this one for street signs embedded with nuggets of information, like the exact GPS location of the vehicle or upcoming features of the road, like dramatic curves or stoplights. Take the group’s stop sign, for example. To the human eye, the sign would look exactly the same: red, octagonal, with big white letters saying “stop.” But the car’s infrared light can “see” the equivalent of a bar code within the sign as it goes by, potentially using information to anticipate a curvy road ahead and slow down or pinpoint the vehicle’s exact location to better stay within lanes. Sultan says this information is encoded using special films and inks, which the infrared camera can read.

Pavement markings and street signs might seem like a small place to start when it comes to connected infrastructure. But these products represent an important baby step, given how expensive building new infrastructure can be. In 2013, the U.S. Department of Transportation estimated it would cost $109 billion per year in 2020 to simply maintain American roads, highways, and bridges in their current condition, and $184.2 billion to improve them. It’s safe to assume it would cost much more than that to build connectivity into our roads.

A Future That Hasn’t Arrived (Yet)

One key element of safety when it comes to connected anything, whether a smart fridge or a smart road, is how easy it is to hack. While 3M hopes to become the leading purveyor of connected roads, it’s still figuring out how to make its technology secure–complicated by the fact that national standards don’t yet exist for it.

According to David Levinson, a professor at the University of Sydney who leads the Network Design Lab and the Transport Engineering group, this is one of the biggest problems with any smart infrastructure. “Camera sensors and programs that analyze images can be spoofed by markings on stop signs to make them think they’re a different type of sign,” he says. “It’s going to be a cat and mouse game. If someone can broadcast the 55 mph sign, I can sneak up to the speed limit sign and broadcast that the speed limit is 95 mph.”

Kris Hansen, a lab manager for the Connected Roads group, says she’s confident about the security of 3M’s smart code system in signage because the information is stored on a central database, not on the sign itself. The bigger risk is if someone were to steal the sign itself; there’s no feature that would still provide cars with the information if someone were to remove the sign. Still, security, just like with cars themselves, will continue to be a concern. “No one is pretending this problem doesn’t exist,” she says.

It’s telling that Google isn’t developing connected infrastructure to go along with its ambitious self-driving car programs, though. Google says its cars have to be entirely self-sufficient so they’re safe to drive on any road–eliminating the need for smart roads altogether. (Uber, with its own ambitious autonomous vehicle program, declined to comment on this story.) With car companies focused on vehicles and local governments tight on cash, there are no standards yet for what technology carmakers can and can’t expect to find on the road, whether they’re in the heart of South Dakota or the boroughs of New York City.

“We don’t have a standard for what would help the driverless car,” Levinson says. “We don’t have a standard for, this is the most efficient paint marking, or we’re going to put this RFID in the sign to broadcast this message.” That means it’ll be difficult for any state to begin implementing technology when there aren’t any guidelines for what to invest in–a significant barrier for 3M as the company looks to market its new products.

As self-driving cars start to come online, 3M still has research and testing to do. But when they do finally take to the streets, we all might be thankful for that 20-year-old snowplow technology, seemingly inconsequential at the time but paving the way today for a new era of infrastructure.

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