The challenges facing the U.S. transportation system are plentiful and worsen each year. As demand on our nation’s roadways increases, so do safety, efficiency and sustainability issues.
The historic $1 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, one of the largest and wide-reaching infrastructure packages in decades, is a massive down payment on the investment needs of the nation and will unlock thousands of important projects in every state. But public funds alone, especially when allocated over a period of five years, are insufficient to keep pace with the emerging needs of our population, cities and the vehicles that travel the roads every day.
For example, the plan allocates $100 billion for repairing aging and dilapidated highways, bridges and roads. Unfortunately, the U.S. has underfunded its roadways for years, leaving 43% of our public roadways in poor or mediocre condition and resulting in a backlog of $435 billion in road repair needs. Even with public funds dedicated to repairing our roads, we’re still behind where we need to be.
The transportation infrastructure industry has historically been risk-averse and limited by the availability of public transportation funds. However, there are several historic examples of early technology networks that we all rely on to this day that have had dramatic impacts on the national economy. These projects were spurred by public investment, required local implementation by local public works agencies, and were largely delivered and maintained by private organizations.
Paved roads were introduced a little more than 100 years ago to support the early automobile. The interstate system has been known as the “greatest public works project in history” since President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956. It’s a means of everyday travel, commerce and culture.
You wouldn’t be reading this article on a computer, tablet or smartphone screen without the benefits afforded by the national power grid, cable and cell networks. As we rely upon, trust and relinquish more of our lives to technology, a growing number of transportation researchers and smart infrastructure providers are embracing creative new methods of improving safety, efficiency and sustainability.
There are more than 4 million miles of public roadways crisscrossing the United States. Smart roads are an obvious, accessible solution to transform infrastructure for the next generation of vehicles, people and cities. Too often we invent new technology to improve old technology. Transforming roads into networks is a solution that enables technology.
By transforming roads into a data and communications platform, we can collect anonymous data brick-and-mortar stores can use to have the same level of insight for vehicle traffic as online retailers get from internet traffic. Online retailers are informed about their customers’ demographics, shopping and buying habits, market trends and traffic patterns because traffic data is automatically and passively collected because of internet infrastructure and services.
Comparatively, brick-and-mortar stores essentially know nothing about their customer base. The entrepreneur invests millions into the local economy after spending months finding and fitting out a location, stocking and staffing it, all before a single transaction can be made. The anonymous data collected from roadways can help business owners improve their operations and enable traditional retailers to remain competitive with online retailers.
If we leverage these smart infrastructure services, roads can pay for themselves by relying on the cash flow from these new capabilities — much like cell and internet infrastructure markets have been mostly self-supporting. This means some public roads can be sustainably financed and self-funding, which allows cities to shift their limited budgets away from roads and toward other community needs.
The infrastructure plan’s $65 billion for broadband access would aim to improve internet services for rural areas, low-income families and tribal communities. The plan’s $7.5 billion allocated for electric vehicle charging stations aims to accelerate electric vehicle adoption to help curb climate change and reduce the nation’s dependence on oil.
If smart roads offered a menu of capabilities, including 5G wireless access and wireless EV charging, designed from the outset to be software-upgradeable, our nation’s road networks would be able to keep pace with evolving technology. Roads are already available in rural areas, so there’s no need to construct new cell towers. Embedding the roads with wireless EV charging capabilities would eliminate the need for charging stations to follow a gas station model — in fact, EV owners and drivers wouldn’t have to pull off the road and plug in to charge at all.
Assessing fees for the use of the commercial services delivered via these roadways — whether for communication services paid for by network operators, EV charging and navigation paid for by the vehicle owners, or data services paid for by the businesses that use them — enable smart roads to pay for themselves by relying on the cash flow from these new capabilities.
The main challenge to the adoption of smart roads is that public owners have gotten into the mindset that they cannot, and should not, take risks with public money. Historically, public money is risk capital and the first money in on these opportunities. We must get public owners out of this risk-free mindset and battle the idea that public agencies cannot or should not enable economic development through infrastructure.
Putting public investment into infrastructure opportunities that enable massive economic development is how we got paved roads 100 years ago and interstates 60 years ago. Therefore, it’s an approach that’s already been vetted and with some notable proof points that Americans are using every day. These aren’t new ways of doing things. These are old ways of doing things we’ve done many times, packaged in an updated way for the emerging needs of society.
Another challenge is how prolonged public projects are compared to market activities. In the 18 months it takes a public agency to issue a road work permit, we can see an entire generation of software and hardware pass by but not a single shovel has hit the ground. The slow pace of public works means we must look far, far ahead. We can’t focus on short-term goals because those will be gone before the project leaves the design stage. Public works’ scope, scale and speed (or lack thereof) means we must take an extremely long time horizon.
Investing in our nation’s roadways is key to growing a thriving economy and critical to our future. Today, cities face pressure to respond to urbanization, streamline traffic flow, reduce pollution and help improve safety.
Smart road technology helps city planners and governments address these challenges head-on. From traffic management to pedestrian and vehicle safety to environmental monitoring, the Internet of Things (IoT) is making roadways more intelligent, efficient and well managed.
The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act is a first step to help tackle the current state of our nation’s infrastructure. How this investment is used will be the change-maker. If it is distributed to apply Band-Aid solutions on aging processes simply because it’s how things have been done in recent years, then the money will go fast and soon be forgotten without any meaningful improvements.
But suppose we use this investment as a down payment on innovative infrastructure projects. In that case, we have an opportunity to build the proper cadence of consistent and meaningful upgrades that progress toward a stronger future and allow emerging technologies to be integrated easier and at a faster rate.