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Safe, Autonomous, Airborne: What Will Roads Look Like in 30 Years?

From electrified pavement that can charge vehicles and delivery robots that collect data to flying taxis, transportation experts sound off on what we can expect highways and byways to look like in 2050.

futuristic illustration of yellow roadways in a black city
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Roadways are being wired to charge electric vehicles as they drive across them. The road surfaces themselves are being made with asphalt derived from recycled tires. And visionaries are dreaming up new, nimble electric aircraft to buzz above urban regions, delivering passengers and goods.

These are some of the concepts being explored today that could be more fully realized in two to three decades as the United States begins the monumental task of planning and developing new transportation infrastructures through initiatives like the federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.

And just as transportation modes are evolving at a rapid pace, as the century-old industry transitions from gas vehicles to EVs, new conversations are opening up novel possibilities to see roadways as spaces for integration with other modes and technologies.

“While people have talked about it, we’re at this moment now — especially with the infrastructure bill — that’s the once-in-a-generation opportunity,” said Mark Rosekind, chief safety innovation officer at Zoox, a mobility-as-a-service company developing shared autonomous urban transportation. Rosekind is also a former administrator with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).

“If we aren’t asking these questions — What should it look like in 30 years? — we’ll get there in 30 years and go, is this really what we wanted?” Rosekind added.

Organizations like The Ray, an 18-mile technology testbed in Georgia, are asking probing questions around the future of roadways and the trends bringing multiple sectors together.

“The most obvious example is the energy sector and transportation, as it relates to electric vehicles,” said Allie Kelly, executive director of The Ray, adding that other examples include the intersection of the digital economy with transportation and mobility in the form of connected and autonomous vehicles, as well as delivery vehicles. Transportation agencies are now firmly in the digital world as they make decisions with the help of big data and analytics.

Converged and coordinated sectors like energy and transportation are the prerequisite to effectively growing the widescale adoption of EVs, experts say.

“But we can’t do it without building the infrastructure that supports that function,” Kelly said. “We can’t support electrified transportation without building at-scale EV charging hubs. And we can’t support functionality like platooning or functionality like Level 5 autonomy without building the digital and the physical infrastructure to support more connectivity, and to leverage data and transportation with connected and autonomous vehicles.”

Energy, transportation and charging hubs are coming together in the form of initiatives like using roadway rights of way for the installation of solar fields to generate electric power.

“The right of way is the public’s land that offers us the opportunity to dig in this infrastructure for resilience, and to avoid protracted legal struggles and fights with communities who don’t want this infrastructure in their backyard,” Kelly said.

“So we think in 2050, it’s not going to be just BEV [battery electric vehicle] freight or hydrogen fuel cell. We think it’s going to be a combination of technologies that’s going to include both. And so we’re going to see hydrogen refueling stations, and we’re going to see high-powered electric vehicle charging for medium-duty and heavy-duty [vehicles] on the roadsides as well,” she envisioned.

Electrification and the infrastructure needed to serve EVs are two technology areas shaping the roads of tomorrow, Rosekind agreed.

“Those two things, with the new technology, should be right smack in the middle of the bull’s eye,” he remarked.
overhead schematic of connected cars on a busy road
Aside from the numerous projects to expand electric vehicle charging, a number of other projects are exploring other innovative marriages between infrastructure and technology.

We can’t support electrified transportation without building at-scale EV charging hubs. And we can’t support functionality like platooning or functionality like Level 5 autonomy without building the digital and the physical infrastructure to support more connectivity, and to leverage data and transportation with connected and autonomous vehicles.
The Indiana Department of Transportation has a three-year project with Magment GmbH to develop in-road wireless charging. The project is part of the Advancing Sustainability through Power Infrastructure for Roadway Electrification (ASPIRE) Initiative, a project funded by the National Science Foundation. The project will ultimately develop a 0.25-mile testbed.

Similarly, the Michigan Department of Transportation selected the company Electreon to build a one-mile section of wireless EV charging roadway in Detroit.

And if roadways are getting wired with electricity, they are also getting built with a different mix of materials with an eye toward improved sustainability. Old car tires are being recycled into asphalt in states like California.

“Rubber-modified asphalt actually makes better roads than virgin polymer asphalt,” said Maureen Kline, vice president of public affairs and sustainability at Pirelli Tire, adding that the modified asphalt leads to longer road life, fewer potholes and reduced maintenance. “Which saves money and also saves lives,” she said, speaking on a panel in mid-April to discuss the circularity of transportation and the efforts to reduce the use of raw materials and reuse more of those materials. The panel was hosted by The Ray.

States like Georgia are considering bills in their legislatures that would direct money paid in tire fees toward landfill remediation with some of the money set aside for innovation, namely for rubber-modified asphalt projects.

“Rubber-modified asphalt, which is widespread in Georgia already, could get a boost from innovation funds to allow for getting exactly the right mix in a particular area on a particular road,” said Kline.
The roadways of the future may not just be on the ground, but pathways carved out of airspace above urban areas dedicated to the movement of small, nimble, electric and possibly autonomous aircraft, capable of landing and taking off from the tops of buildings, or even freeways. Vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) vehicles have been the delight of urban futurists for several years, with no shortage of analysis and planning from transportation and urban design watchers.

schematic of connected cars on a three-lane freeway
Urban Movement Labs, a nonprofit transportation and urbanism think tank in Los Angeles, has been actively imagining the cities of 2050 to get a sense of what sort of planning should be happening today to prepare for a world of more coordinated electric, autonomous and multimodal transportation.

“For the first time in human history, we’re really able to anticipate a new transportation mode before we build the system,” said Sam Morrissey, executive director of Urban Movement Labs.

We need to leverage these technologies to address persistent challenges in cities. And I think we’ll see more of that in the coming.
When asked if we should expect to see VTOL technology become a reality in cities in the next several decades, Morrissey didn’t hesitate.

“I would say in the next 20 or 30 years, it’s a definite yes,” he remarked.

Which is why Urban Movement Labs is working to develop an “integration manual” to help cities understand the regulatory landscape, and other concerns, for systems like these.

“Really, what we’re trying to do is give that foreshadowing. Here’s all the things that might come up,” said Morrissey.

The Ray in Georgia is also looking skyward and planning for VTOLs. Kelly speculated that the airspace just above interstates could serve as roadways in the sky for the aircraft, flying along the “concrete compass,” as it’s been called.

“The right of way gives you the dedicated and organized airspace, and it also gives you the concrete asphalt of the interstate system that provides the most efficient pathway between point A and point B,” said Kelly.

The density of many urban areas prohibits easy landing opportunities for these types of aircraft, which makes construction of landing infrastructure on top of freeways themselves attractive opportunities, said Kelly, particularly as cities plan uses for cap-and-lid projects that develop new land uses on top of urban freeways, creating new real estate and opening up new development opportunities.

“So it’s a perfect marriage,” said Kelly.

As modes converge and overlap — air taxis connecting with ground transportation, for example — never far from either of these conversations is the technology around autonomy.

“Five years ago I think there was this push that we were going to have automation instantly. And I think what we’re seeing is that it’s very difficult to make a car operate fully autonomously, in all environments,” Morrissey reflected.

“I don’t believe that by 2050 we’ll see a fully autonomous city. I do think there could be dedicated locations where automated vehicles might operate. They could be sort of separated from the fray of human-operated vehicles,” he said, adding the challenge for this scenario is in the notion of allocating road space for just one mode or one technology.

We need to use every opportunity. Technology in the cars. Technology in the infrastructure we build. We need to build the roads safer, and not just for the vehicles, but the pedestrians, the bicyclists.
But watch for some specialty transportation sectors to move more aggressively toward autonomy. Long-haul trucking is an example, as is local package delivery, given the rapid development of sidewalk delivery robot technologies now in use in many cities. And, while we’re at it, consider the other tasks those bots can do while they’re roving down the street. They can do a lot more than show up with a burrito. The devices can gather data that can be used by the city.

“These vehicles are out here mapping our physical assets,” said Morrissey, who noted sidewalk maintenance is often an ongoing challenge for cities, one that can involve multiple departments. “We need to leverage these technologies to address persistent challenges in cities. And I think we’ll see more of that in the coming years.”

“There are a number of missions for these roving delivery systems that could be implemented that we haven’t even scratched the surface yet,” added Francis Pollara, director of strategy and development at Urban Movement Labs.

Transit is another area ripe for automation. Today, there’s no shortage of autonomous electric shuttle projects across the nation in various stages of deployment.

Another aspirational outcome for roadways of the future — perhaps an imperative — is that they are safer. In 2020, the latest year for which statistics are available, highway-related fatalities increased 6.8 percent, with more than 38,800 lives lost, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

“This is a must. For everything else we do, safety’s got to be an imperative. And we use this moment to advance safety,” said Rosekind, a former NHTSA official.

“And unless you use all your tools to solve these problems, we’re going to be stuck with these numbers going up, going up. And these numbers are peoples’ lives. That’s why we have a crisis,” he added.

This is where placing technology within the infrastructure can help to shape and improve the safety of roadways, he added.

“We need to use every opportunity. Technology in the cars. Technology in the infrastructure we build. We need to build the roads safer, and not just for the vehicles, but the pedestrians, the bicyclists,” said Rosekind. “It’s the system part that we have an opportunity to really address.”

Cars and infrastructure could communicate more broadly, working in tandem to improve flow and reduce congestion. Perhaps the smart devices we all carry and wear could start communicating with infrastructure and cars to make pedestrians and bicyclists more visible, said Rosekind.

“We need to think broadly about how we apply these technology innovations,” he added.

“Lets say the technology really works, and all the benefits we think we can really get,” Rosekind continued. “If that’s true, then we should have effective public transit systems that complement all the new autonomous vehicles. They shouldn’t be in competition.”

Which calls to mind the future of transportation itself, and in 2050, it should be more equitable and more accessible.

“I think the thinking now is, how do we build our transportation systems to address the mobility needs of all people, in the best ways possible,” said Morrissey.

“Our life is built around mobility. Our needs are based on mobility. So when we think about roadways and transportation, I think there’s a great shift that’s going on in the conversations around roadways and transportation and mobility,” he added. “And it’s a shift around how do we think about mobility? And how do we approach our solutions to mobility?”
Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Yreka, Calif.
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