Exploring promising research ideas may offer solutions to tomorrow’s transportation challenges. With an eye toward the future of transportation, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) is expanding its advanced research program.
Might fully automated highway systems, super concretes, smart aggregates and self-healing structures be part of that future? No one knows for sure, but history has shown that investments in advanced research have led to significant breakthroughs, or payoffs, such as space travel, nuclear-powered energy and the Internet. Payoffs in advanced research already have enabled the FHWA and its many partners to make significant strides in improving the transportation system. Secretary of Transportation Norm Mineta is committed to the research that advances innovation vital to transportation, and the U.S. Department of Transportation promoted advanced research in the new highway, transit and safety law. As a result, in August 2005, under the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act—A Legacy for Users (SAFETEA-LU), the department received a substantial authorization of $14 million per year for “exploratory advanced research.”
Advanced research draws on knowledge obtained through basic research findings and covers the broad range of progressive discovery that could potentially move ideas from fundamental breakthrough concepts to real-world applications. The degree of risk and the probability for high payoff distinguish the three types of research—basic, advanced and applied—from one another. As the research focus, from basic to advanced and then to applied, becomes narrower toward solving a problem, the outcome becomes more predictable and the risk decreases.
The majority of the FHWA’s programs are aimed at applied research defined by incremental improvements that will lower construction and maintenance costs, improve system performance, add highway capacity, reduce highway fatalities and injuries, reduce adverse environmental impacts and achieve other user benefits. However, the agency also engages in advanced research, which focuses on longer-term, higher-risk opportunities with the potential to dramatically change the way the U.S. builds, maintains and safely operates the nation’s transportation system. The following success stories illustrate how advanced research is making a difference in the areas of transportation safety and reliability.
The development of two FHWA advanced research studies in nondestructive-evaluation methods has led to successful applications that have improved roads and bridges. For example, researchers at the Turner-Fairbank Highway Research Center (TFHRC) in McLean, Va., discovered that nondestructive testing of steel structures based on the principle of magnetostrictive sensing could be successfully used to measure tension in individual cables. Further research led to the commercial development of this technology that has changed conventional methods for inspecting suspension cables and monitoring tensile stresses. This evaluation system was used on the Bridge of the Americas, crossing the Panama Canal in Panama, to test each of the 168 suspension cables of the tied-arch bridge. This normally time-consuming testing took less than 10 days.
Another success story of nondestructive testing and detection of bridge deterioration is possible today using fiber-optic sensor systems. Several companies now offer Bragg fiber-optic sensor systems on a commercial basis. Through the FHWA Innovative Bridge Research and Construction Program, Hawaii and New Mexico will test the reliability of the sensors for bridge monitoring. As a result, several other states are considering installation of these systems on new or existing bridges.
In another advanced research direction, experts at TFHRC are developing the Digital Highway Measurement (DHM) instrumented van, which can collect an array of high-accuracy highway data while traveling at speeds up to 60 mph. This method of data collection reduces the need for lane closures, thus increasing safety and decreasing congestion. The accurate data collected with the system can provide information and knowledge needed to improve highway safety, asset management, engineering design and numerous other applications. The levels of accuracy for most of the measurements collected by the van are available only through this system. Currently, the van collects the following information: vehicle positioning; pavement texture and joint and crack recognition; roadway profiles; pavement markings; overhead clearances; clear-zone information; and shoulder profile. Soon, the van will have the capability to collect information on utilities, underground structures, voids, reinforcement steel, moisture gradient and sound (noise).
One recent application that builds upon the data collected by the DHM van is a driving simulator in the FHWA’s Human Centered Systems Laboratories. The simulator is a fully interactive, full-size automobile on a motion platform, with the feel and controls of a real vehicle. Roadway profile data collected in the DHM was used in combination with U.S. Geological Survey maps to re-create a section of rural road in Pennsylvania. Researchers examined typical drivers (test subjects) using the simulator to measure speed and vehicle positioning on the two-lane rural road under different pavement marking and signage conditions. The results of the simulation will be compared with the results of drivers who drive the actual road with similar marking and signage changes, thus validating the driving simulator results with real-world results. With this capability, researchers can test various road designs and markings to achieve the desired speeds for the roadway before implementing the changes on the roadway itself. This may be the first time that accurate field data on the “as-built” roadway have been incorporated into a simulation.
Key elements necessary for the successful execution of an advanced-research agenda are already in place. The FHWA has responded to its own as well as external assessments identifying the need for a cohesive and strategic agenda-setting process that involves stakeholders and partners from disciplines inside and outside the transportation sector.
Toward this end, a 2004 external assessment helped establish an agency portfolio of ongoing advanced research. In 2005, the agency conducted think-tank forums to garner stakeholder input and research recommendations for future consideration. The FHWA conducted each of these activities to capture the contributions and opinions of stakeholders and customers.
With these steps, the FHWA has embarked on a path toward greater investment in advanced research.