Redefining road infrastructure

Tech is changing the nature of roads and has the potential to help overcome some of the greatest challenges of traffic growth – but a full-system approach is needed to make that a reality.

Digital technology is reshaping the world around us. Everything connects, and will generate ever greater volumes of data in the future.

These trends are revolutionising global industries, from manufacturing to retail. Infrastructure and transport are no different. Previously limited to physical elements like barriers and traffic signs, road infrastructure increasingly includes digital technologies such as wireless networks and artificial intelligence.

For Larry Burns, former vice president for research and development at General Motors, “it is time the definition of infrastructure evolved to include not just the physical components, such as roads and bridges, but also digital and electronic components”.

More sustainable, efficient and safer roads

Crucially, this isn’t about tech for tech’s sake. These cutting-edge developments can help solve some of the greatest challenges that come with traffic growth and more people on the move.

They can make roads more sustainable and efficient by improving traffic flow, reducing gridlock and the emissions that result. TomTom’s CEO Harold Goddijn says that this “is happening already. Technology contributes to the optimisation of the road network, which can reduce pollution resulting from traffic jams. Just knowing where you have bottlenecks allows local governments to do something about it.”

These innovations can also make roads safer by speeding the rise of autonomous vehicles, which rely on telecommunications to communicate with other vehicles and infrastructure – and which reduce the potential for the human errors which cause such a high percentage of accidents.

And sensors in bridges, tunnels and other infrastructure can provide data on the condition of these assets, in turn minimising disruption from repair and maintenance work.

Global effort

So how close are we to realising that vision? Steven Shladover, Program Manager at the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, feels that there’s more to do: “road transportation is far behind other modes of transportation in terms of system thinking.”

Inventive projects are trying to bridge the gap. One example comes from a pilot in the central business district of Tampa, Florida. It uses smart systems including light detection and radar (LiDAR) technology to track the interactions between vehicles, pedestrians, public transport and the road infrastructure – allowing authorities to better monitor and control traffic, improving safety while reducing journey times.

Projects like the one in Tampa are lighting the way for others. But it’s clear that concerted cross-sector effort is required to make tech-enabled roads the platform for a smarter, cleaner and safer mobility future. As the world’s leading toll road operator, Abertis believes the key to unlocking progress lies at the intersection of advances in technology and road infrastructure innovation – because redesigning – indeed redefining – roads for a world powered by tech is the only way we’ll overcome the challenges of traffic growth.

Read more on the latest developments in Road Tech.