Technology and transportation – changing at high speed

DonHunt_photo_web_2015A conversation with Don Hunt, Executive Director, Colorado Department of Transportation

There are at least three technologies that will have immense impact over the next two decades on how we travel, and how state transportation departments react to provide mobility— connectedness, big data and automation.

Hunt says all three will significantly influence how state departments of transportation (DOTs) manage their operations and budgets.

Whether it’s high-speed cellular technology, the growing network of the connectedness of physical objects like vehicles themselves, or global positioning system (GPS)/ cellular location services, the ability to directly connect vehicles to a variety of information services is already here.

At the same time, big data is the result of connectedness. Every time we log into the internet or use our smartphones, huge amounts of data is being generated and analyzed regarding our behaviors. Location reports monitor the millions of smartphones moving along in vehicles. Companies use this location data to provide real-time speed maps of the entire U.S. roadway system, as well as to identify accidents or other roadway incidents.

What are some advantages of big data?

Big data can help DOTs around the country to better manage their road systems. Colorado DOT (CDOT) has collected statewide continuous pavement condition data for well over a decade. Many states are grappling with how they will begin this type of data collection in response to the new MAP-21 federal reporting requirements.

CDOT improved big data usage by recently improving their statewide reporting on pavement condition, project details and program expenditure status. CDOT broadened their use of asset management systems to guide decisions on where to most effectively spend dollars. The ability to document statewide program progress directly supports their ability to request critical increases in transportation funding in Colorado. Big data shows a “big need” for a sustained increase in transportation funding. This is the case nationally.

What do you see as major improvements?

Electronics and global positioning are major improvements. Electronic paver control and compactor positioning are improving the industry’s ability to produce consistent quality pavements, even during demanding conditions like night paving in heavy traffic conditions.

Electronic plant controls are not new, but improvements in their technology will make asphalt paving mixtures more consistent. Good quality control at the plant identifies problems early and before any paving material is sent out to the construction site.

Electronic systems have also resulted in much improved vehicle efficiency, including automation-enabled technologies such as air bags, electronic stability control and anti-lock braking.

Automation and robotic technologies, while historically slower to evolve and impact transportation than personal devices, have played a significant role in auto safety improvements on the highways. The next generation of automation is coming very soon, as auto manufacturers are rapidly advancing and testing the ability of vehicles to drive themselves under certain conditions, such as in stop-and-go traffic and on freeways.

What do DOTs need to do to prepare for the future?

Decline in per capita driving, emerging travel alternatives such as internet-enabled ride share options, and widespread funding uncertainty make this moment in the transportation industry difficult to navigate for DOT executives. Still, there are actions DOTs should implement now to begin preparing for the future transportation industry.

Establish partner relationships with transportation data/trip information companies. Determine what data you are responsible for, and make it public. While transportation data companies will provide big data and analytics, DOTs will still be uniquely responsible for certain types of information.

Develop department Transportation Systems Management and Operations (TSMO), active traffic management and integrated corridor management capabilities. As feedback on system performance becomes more available from big data analytics, the ability of agencies to actively manage the highway system will grow.

Develop cellular and fiber communications in transportation corridors. Almost all DOTs have implemented fiber backbone systems as part of their intelligent transportation systems (ITS) investments over the last two decades.

Determine how to engage the emerging technology of connected vehicles. The USDOT will likely require all new vehicles to incorporate Dedicated Short Range Communication (DSRC) capability by the end of the decade.

Make friends with your department of motor vehicles (DMV), especially if it happens to be in your DOT. DMVs have a large role as vehicles become more automated because DMVs license vehicles and vehicle operators.

Plan for the DOT workforce of the future. Adaptation for a private company is about survival, but for a government entity it is about relevance and public trust. Consider engaging human resource experts to develop alternative workforce skill scenarios for ten years out—2025.

What about durable pavements?

Officials need to continue to develop policies and technologies that make pavements last longer. CDOT uses the latest state-of-the-art pavement structural design methods (Mechanistic-Empirical Design) to get the quality and durability needed in Colorado.

The quality and durability of asphalt pavement materials are crucial to getting the long-term performance. New or innovative asphalt materials must show equal or better long-term durability over time to ensure we can achieve our anticipated pavement performance life.

Current technologies such as warm mix asphalt (WMA) paving and night paving have really facilitated road construction in Colorado. CDOT has experienced success doing night paving in heavy traffic locations. And cooler night paving conditions and stiffer heavy traffic asphalt mixes have benefited from the use of warm mix asphalt.

Night paving in the Colorado cities, in addition to paving conditions on our high mountainous and long haul remote projects, have benefitted from WMA because it ensures finished compaction and pavement quality. We will continue to utilize night paving and we expect the use of WMA to continue to increase.

What is your advice for the future?

State DOTs are facing their biggest mission challenge since the Interstate Highway Program in the 1950s. Increasingly rapid technological change is about to affect transportation in the same way it has changed other industries. While the future is an unknown, those organizations that can find the common threads leading to the future will best serve their residents and customers.

– John Davis, Contributing Editor