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Civil Engineer blog

How to keep roads future-proof

16 September 2019

Self-driving cars are nearly here. Michael McHale of TRL says civil engineers must start preparing now for the rapid changes in the transport sector, ensuring existing road networks continue to be fit-for-purpose.

How to keep roads future-proof
Connected and automated vehicles travelling in groups will present new patterns of traffic loading and potentially alter the way road pavements deteriorate.

The modern world is on the brink of a transport revolution, and with every innovation comes a new set of challenges. Since the 1800s, the principal mandate for civil engineers and road authorities has exclusively been to produce longer-lasting, more durable surfaces.

New technologies such as vehicle automation and smart infrastructure have huge potential to improve safety, reduce fuel consumption and enhance data capture to enable faster response times and proactive asset management.

It's vital for road engineers to work closely with the industry and address the impact of new technologies on existing road infrastructure.

Importantly, we must develop innovative solutions to ensure the future of road surfaces are fit for a connected and automated future.

Connected vehicles and smart roads

Connected and automated vehicles (CAVs) present a variety of challenges for the future, beginning with how to adapt road surfaces to accommodate them. Automated cars and lorries will present new patterns of traffic loading and potentially alter the way road pavements deteriorate.

For example, CAVs moving as a group are likely to travel along the same wheel path with a different loading frequency that could increase rutting and polishing rates, leading to increased maintenance intervention.

Smart infrastructure is also likely to accelerate as technologies advance. Sensors such as wireless mesh networks could be used to communicate information about the condition of road surfaces and their surrounding environment. Installing sensors throughout the network will allow for faster response times and enable real-time infrastructure health monitoring and asset management.

Safer, longer-lasting surfaces

On the materials front, low-noise and low-spray surfaces have been developed to improve the acoustic and wet performance of roads. Optimising the design of these surfaces means striking a balance between durability, skid resistance and whole-life costs. Other challenges include reducing the reduction in performance over time and allowing for increased risk taking by drivers.

Plastic-modified bitumen materials have been tipped to provide longer-lasting roads. However, there are concerns around these products such as lack of standards and specifications within the industry, the volume of plastic incorporated into the bitumen and the implications of plastic waste biproducts from surface deterioration on the environment and surrounding ecosystems. It is vital more research is undertaken before these materials are rolled out nationally.

Keeping roads fit for purpose

TRL is involved in many leading projects to advance transport systems. These include shared mobility schemes, high profile CAV projects, materials that will double life expectancy and use of machine learning and statistical data modelling to predict future trends, increase efficiency and improve public services.

Maintaining the UK’s extensive road network is vital for the future of transport. Civil engineers must prepare now and innovate to embrace the rapid changes ahead for the transport sector.

The profession needs to develop a focused strategy for the future, with strong policies to maintain and strengthen the foundations of the UK’s road network to ensure it continues to be fit for purpose.

This article is based on the authors’ briefing article in the latest issue (172 CE3) of the ICE Civil Engineering journal.

  • Michael McHale, Technical Director - Airfield and Pavement Engineering, WSP