The off-ramp on the road to global gridlock

New road technologies can help tackle the challenges of global traffic growth – but concerted and collaborative effort is needed to spur progress

There is no question that traffic and congestion is getting worse, all around the world. There are now 1 billion vehicles on the road globally. The World Economic Forum says that number could grow by 600 million by 2025. By 2050, it could rise as high as 4 billion.

This brings enormous costs and consequences. The cost of all the traffic jams so many people encounter every day was put at $1.4 trillion by the WEF. Nearly 1.3 million people die each year in traffic accidents. Another 20 to 50 million are injured in the same fashion. Vehicles are the source of approximately 17% of all carbon emissions as well, making it a primary cause of air pollution (and all the health conditions that come with it) and climate change.

Safer, cleaner vehicles

The automotive sector, spurred by commercial opportunities and undeniable realities, has shown a strong will and ability to innovate in response to these challenges. More fuel-efficient cars and electric cars have been moves in the right direction. Self-driving cars and trucks could be a great leap forward. One McKinsey report said that self-driving cars could reduce accidents by 90%, for example.

There is great promise in these developments, but the responsibility (and opportunity) cannot fall on vehicle manufacturers alone. Government policies and regulations can spur innovation and are needed as well, but these must find a way to address the challenges of the moment without limiting the mobility that is so necessary to so many.

The road is the key

That will require collaboration between the public and private sector, between industries, and between interest groups. It will also require a focus on what is often an overlooked aspect of this—the roads themselves. They needn’t be solely a surface on which people drive. They can in fact be an active participant in the effort to create a more intelligent, more efficient infrastructure and transport system.

After all, says Francisco Reynés, Vice Chairman and CEO of Abertis, the world’s largest toll road operator, “roads are the critical and universal platform on which all these technologies need to operate.”

Smarter, more efficient roads

Smarter, more efficient roads can help reduce accidents. They can help drivers navigate (and avoid) traffic. They can nurture the concept of mobility-as-a-service. They can help generate electricity. They can make travel and commerce more efficient, and they can augment the capacities being developed by the automotive industries and others.

Some of this is already happening. There are already piezoelectric roads in some countries that generate power from the stress exerted by the vehicles that drive them. More innovation could be just around the corner if the right groups collaborate in imaginative ways to create the conditions that further cultivate these developments.

According to an Abertis-commissioned report from the Economist Intelligence Unit on this subject, the next five to 10 years will be crucial. If we work together, putting the best of the private and public sectors to work, finding the right financing mechanisms and displaying the will and imagination needed, we can better connect cities and countries, spurring growth and opportunity in the process that doesn’t jeopardise public health and positively helps address climate change.

We can help people and goods move more efficiently, at lower costs. And we can build the more intelligent road infrastructure system that we all need for our journey into the future.


Read more on the latest developments in Road Tech.