All Member Forum

National Engineers Week 2020: Technology and the Future of the Transportation System

By Ms. Angela Kitali posted 02-18-2020 12:09 PM


The invention of automobiles and the construction of the Eisenhower Interstate System are some of the best innovations of the 20th century in the surface transportation sector. In fact, automobiles and freeways have been an integral part of the American way of life. Surface transportation is now going through a major overhaul following the advancements in technology. With the advent of self-driving vehicles, connectivity of the transportation network, the emergence of electric vehicles, and the rapid expansion of the ridesharing industry and micromobility, the transportation system is at the cusp of a new era. With the help of technology, our roadways could be safer, congestion-free, environmentally friendly, not to mention sustainable and even resilient. The good news is that some of these technologies are already being used in our transportation system; self-driving vehicles, connected vehicles, connected signals, electric vehicles, ridesharing companies, the list goes on. The most important question we need to ask ourselves now is how can we successfully and seamlessly transition into this new era? How can we make the most of what technology has to offer to our transportation industry? With these major changes occurring in the transportation industry, the pillars of our transportation system require major revisions if not establishing new pillars altogether.

Data is the new pillar! What else? Seamless integration, and of course the infrastructure. For the transportation industry to be sustainable, resilient, and to strive, it requires a capability to constantly disseminate and receive petabytes of data every day in real-time. It also requires a renovated infrastructure that flawlessly integrates different components constituting our transportation system. Smooth integration will only be possible if the transportation sub-systems are interoperable. The interoperability of features and components in the new transportation infrastructure will ensure the effective connectivity among devices and systems. As of now, we have been playing catch with technology. We retrofit our facilities following the new technology that comes in the market. However, transportation agencies need to be at the forefront driving the wheel of advancement in technology.

Our industry is already moving in the right direction of preparing the infrastructure to smoothly transition into the new era of greener, smarter, and connected transportation system. One of the first initiatives to be put forth is the Signal Phasing and Timing (SPaT) system. The SPaT system, which is equipped with different technologies including the Roadside Unit (RSU), Onboard Unit (OBU), and smartphone applications, can be used to convey the current status of a signal at the intersection to not only vehicles but also the non-motorized road users such pedestrians and bicyclists. Through the SPaT Challenge initiative, more than 216 signalized intersections across 26 states in the United States already deploy SPaT messages.

In addition to introducing connectivity at signalized intersections through the SPaT system; agencies have also attempted to improve the safety and mobility of work zones both for workers and the traveling public through the Smart Work Zone system. Taking advantage of the advancements in technology, the smart work zone system is designed with improved communication framework and enhanced traffic control devices. The SPaT application and the Smart Work Zone system are some of the systems that use technology to improve the safety and mobility of our transportation network.

With the pace that technology in the transportation industry is growing, there is so much that can be done. For example, pavement is a component of the transportation infrastructure that could be revolutionized through technology. I am talking about the smart pavement! Imagine the 41,000 miles of U.S. Interstate System equipped with a smarter pavement that could create its own clean, renewable energy, and transportation agencies can generate income by selling power to utility companies. In order to allow as much sunlight exposure as possible, less occupied existing pavements such as those located in rest areas, service plazas, shoulders, and emergency lanes could be covered with photovoltaic solar panels. Asphalts could be designed in a way that it generates electrical energy as vehicles move over (and charge the vehicles). The panels can be equipped with LED lights and hence create lines and signage without paint. The harnessed energy could be used to power the highway service facilities. The smart pavement technology will mark the beginning of multi-purpose, sustainable, environmentally friendly roadway infrastructure, and the first big step toward preparing for electric vehicles.

All in all, the transportation network has become the backbone of the U.S. economy if not the entire world. Transportation agencies strive to have an efficient transportation system that is safer and with fewer delays. Nevertheless, congestion and traffic crashes have continuously been deterring the performance of our transportation network. Technology advancement has already begun to provide a solution to several problems facing our transportation industry and the best is yet to come!