Smarter Roads: Innovations in Roadway Infrastructure

Highways Agency

The wealth of time and interest devoted to the development of smart cars in recent years often overshadows equally significant advancements in a related sector: the roadways that such cars will navigate. Smarter roads may not have received as much attention as the advent of smart cars; however, governments, entrepreneurs, and innovative companies have been allocating substantial research and development resources toward their creation.

In many economies, financial support for improving (and even maintaining) road and highway infrastructure has been dwindling over the last decade. Yet paradoxically, the shrinking of road funding is spurring more, rather than less, innovation in infrastructure.

Governments, which are primarily responsible for maintaining the 20 million miles of road that presently cover the earth’s surface, are investing in products and services that will reduce the cost of their upkeep.

And while the desire to cut costs may be the primary driver behind recent road and highway innovation, other drivers—such as environmental concerns, safety considerations, and better traffic management—are also playing an important role in current advancements.

What are the major factors driving current research and development into smarter roads and surveys some of the most promising advances in smart road technology?

3 KEY FINDINGS

  • Constrained budgets, traffic congestion, and concerns about energy, safety, and sustainability are driving innovations in smart road construction.
  • Most smart infrastructure systems under development focus on energy conservation or energy generation.
  • The proliferation of smart highways and roads will necessarily broaden the market for smart vehicles.

3 DRIVERS

A number of economic and social forces are driving current highway and road research and development. These include:

  • High maintenance costs and shrinking budgets. The cost of maintaining and repairing roads is straining municipal and federal government budgets. According to the OECD, its countries spend 1% of GDP—more than $40 billion per year in OECD countries alone—on inland transport infrastructure (road and rail). Of this, road maintenance accounts for between 25% and 35% of all OECD highway expenditures. (In the US, for example, nearly 30% of road spending goes to maintenance.)3 That means that in OECD countries, annual road maintenance costs total nearly $10 billion. As transportation budgets tighten, governments seeking to control highway expenditures are seeking road improvements that will reduce annual maintenance costs—or eventually even pay for themselves.
  • Energy costs and concerns. Coupled with environmental concerns, cost concerns are prompting governments to cut down on the amount of energy they use. As part of this effort, city councils from Colorado Springs in the US to Yorkshire County in the UK are dimming or completely turning out streetlights in order to save money.4
  • Sustainability. Concerns about the long-term future of the planet are driving moves to reduce carbon footprints, especially those associated with motor vehicles. The push for sustainability is propelling not only the growth of the hybrid and electric vehicle (EV) market, but also the development of carbon-neutral approaches to such matters as infrastructure upgrades.

3 BUSINESS IMPLICATIONS

  • With most national and state governments, particularly in World 1, seeking low-cost solutions to inland transport infrastructure problems, opportunities are opening up for visionary companies in a wide variety of sectors, not only construction. Investing R&D resources in finding innovative products or services that address highway departments’ concerns—high maintenance costs, efficient use of energy, traffic management, and safety, all ideally coupled with sustainability—could yield significant rewards. Winners could include companies that manufacture electronics and alternative energy hardware; those that recycle plastics or other materials; chemical companies that can extend the “glow time” of road paints; designers of computer programs and creators of apps— and any other company that can deliver low-cost and/ or environmentally friendly answers to these challenges.
  • Smart roads that deliver induction priority lanes or generate electricity for use in roadside charging stations would likely stimulate the market for sustainable transportation. Electric cars, trucks, and buses would gain more widespread appeal if smart roads could help extend their range between charges (or eliminate the need for recharging). Like consumers, car-sharing services might invest in EVs if charging were less uncertain.
  • Similarly, smarter roads may accelerate the already-growing demand for smart cars. The advent of connected roads will increase demand for in-vehicle programs, apps, and communication devices that “speak to the road,” allowing them to make optimal use of the information transmitted by smart highways. Indeed, some governments may mandate the installation of onboard technologies—especially those that enhance the safety of both drivers and road workers.

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