Roughly 40 percent of the nation’s roads and major highways are not considered to be in good condition, and about 70,000 of U.S. bridges are structurally deficient. During the 2016 presidential campaign both candidates seized on our failing transportation infrastructure, each promising heavy investments to rebuild roads and bridges.
Now, while political leaders grapple with where to prioritize infrastructure investment, our transportation needs call for deeper, more complex dialogue than that offered in political talking points. Beyond rebuilding today’s infrastructure, we may want to ask ourselves what tomorrow’s roads, bridges and automobile alternatives might look like, and how we can prepare for coming change. What technological advances should we take into consideration? Will autonomous vehicles go mainstream soon? Which materials are best from sustainability and longevity standpoints?
No single government agency can address all these issues, but Arizona State University researchers are anticipating the future. Here’s a look at ASU’s role in answering the nation’s biggest transportation questions.
When it comes to crumbling roads and bridges, advances in materials are key to getting the greatest long-term bang for today’s transportation buck. Narayanan Neithalath, professor of structural engineering and materials at ASU’s School of Sustainable Engineering and the Built Environment, has been grappling with materials dilemmas for years. He appears to have found some solutions.
Concrete used for today’s roads and bridges easily cracks with temperature shifts. With cracking comes considerable repair work, and in areas where roads are salted during the winter, the steel underneath the concrete surface can corrode without notice.
“You may not even see the crack on the surface. You see signs of corrosion only after it has progressed quite extensively,” Neithalath says.
In collaboration with researchers at UCLA and in Europe, Neithalath has experimented with a waxlike material mixed into concrete that allows the concrete to better expand and contract and handle temperature fluctuations without cracking.
His team also experiments with new materials to reduce the amount of Portland cement — the most common type of cement in general use around the world — needed in concrete. The production of a ton of Portland cement results in the emission of about a ton of carbon dioxide, Neithalath explains.
Predicting transportation needs:
Understanding current and future traffic patterns is key to prioritizing transportation investment. Figuring out how we use transportation resources today, and considering how we may use them in the future, is a complex game. Ram Pendyala, an ASU professor of transportation systems, is at the center of these tradeoffs.
Pendyala and his research team have worked on transportation-demand forecasting models for the New York Metropolitan Transportation Council, Colorado Department of Transportation, Maricopa Association of Governments and other agencies.
Their models attempt to account for all transportation circumstances and needs, factoring in driving patterns, mass transit use, demographics, economics, rider and driver profiles and emerging technologies, while also considering the potential for future changes.
“Literally, we try to simulate a day in the life of every person in the Valley,” says Pendyala, “so we can get a handle on hot spots, congestion points, sources of bottlenecks and the strategies we can adopt to mitigate congestion without spending a fortune on transportation improvements.”
Pendyala is also the director of ASU’s Tier 1 transportation center, one of only 20 in the country sponsored by the U.S. Department of Transportation. Called Teaching Old Models New Tricks (TOMNET), its goal is to develop systems and technologies to provide better surface transportation and mobility. The center also emphasizes K-12 outreach to promote the transportation field as a career option, Pendyala says.
Electric and autonomous vehicles:
A second core area of study for Pendyala’s team is understanding how electric and autonomous vehicles will impact transportation systems.
“There are a lot of unknowns as to how these technologies are going to disrupt transportation systems and networks,” he says.
Further expansion of the electric vehicles (EV) market can influence infrastructure plans and designs. With more EV, there’s a need for more charging stations. When building out new and rebuilding old systems, planning for this potential shift is critical.
Currently, battery storage and the short range for electric vehicles is a deterrent slowing their expansion, Pendyala adds, but if these technological solutions surface soon, infrastructure may need to play catch-up.
Technological solutions for EV and autonomous vehicles are also percolating at ASU.Hongbin Yu is an associate professor and director of the National Science Foundation-funded Center for Efficient Vehicles and Sustainable Transportation Systems, an industry-university cooperative research enterprise. The center’s goal is to develop, validate and apply technologies to improve energy efficiency and environmental sustainability of vehicles. Yu’s center seeks solutions to the powertrain, power electronics and battery storage concerns in electric vehicles and also develops sensor and communication technologies for autonomous vehicles.
Yu says much of the technology being developed for autonomous vehicles today is driven by the need to avoid collisions, but the sensors will eventually become far more sophisticated and capable. They will need to communicate with the transportation system and the driver as well.
“We need more artificial intelligence to recognize if something is a person, tree or plastic bag. We’re not at full automation yet. You still need some driver intervention,” he says of autonomous vehicles.
Yu is forging relationships with private enterprise — entities such as Local Motors (which is experimenting with an electric and autonomous bus), General Motors, Ford Motor Company, Intel, NXP, ON Semiconductor and other technology partners — to further develop solutions.
Beyond cars, the environment:
Mikhail Chester, an ASU professor of transportation infrastructure, studies life cycle assessment of transportation systems, including vehicles, infrastructures and fuels. When looking at the environmental impact of travel, the emphasis tends to be on the tailpipe, he says, but there is so much more involved. Massive supply chains and infrastructure are needed to operate one car.
“When we include all of those components, we see that the footprint of a transportation mode is significantly larger than just the tailpipe,” he says.
Chester also analyzes metro-area transportation infrastructures. Phoenix, he explains, has a relatively young and extremely auto-centric transportation infrastructure. As much as he would like to encourage less automobile use, some modes of transportation struggle for viability, given the configuration of the city. Placing bus stops, for example, in low-density suburban areas results in too few riders to justify the expense of sending a vehicle there. On the other hand, when it comes to light rail, the line is concentrated in the urban core, where residential and business density, as well as events and activities, support its success, Chester explains.
With the automobile still largely driving infrastructure decisions and urban form, it’s important to consider the future when making transportation decisions, he adds. A 10-mile commute taking 20 minutes today could be much longer in the future — when after years of expanding auto infrastructure, we see many more cars on the road. It’s a very Los Angeles-looking future in the making, Chester says.
“Phoenix has been growing into its infrastructure, slowly utilizing more and more of its capacity. It looks like we are building ourselves into congestion,” he adds.
But Chester also avoids the environmental impact soapbox, too.
“I don’t want my message to be ‘everyone should simply adopt biking and walking and we’ll be fine,’” he says. “There are realities to the system we’ve built. The conversation needs to be about how we can minimize the impacts of our travel activities given the infrastructure that we’ve built, and ultimately figure out how to transition this infrastructure.”