Smart, Self Healing Highways Could Be the Way of the Future

A digital facelift for the roads

  • Purdue University is working with transport departments of several states to incorporate sensors into their highways.
  • The sensors are part of the larger initiative to upgrade existing roads, making them smarter to tackle challenges posed by increased traffic and autonomous vehicles.
  • Together with other innovations such as AI-controlled signals, smart roads could save a considerable amount of money and time, argue researchers.
A city interstate system overlayed with data points from artificial intelligence.

XH4D / Getty Images

Flying cars aren't here, but talking roads could be just around the corner.

In the latest Purdue University newsletter, Dr. Luna Lu, professor and director of the university's Center for Intelligent Infrastructure (CII), argued our highways and bridges need to be "smart enough" to prevent their own damage.

"Our roads won't get safer if we continue fixing potholes or building infrastructure as we have been building it," wrote Dr. Lu. "We need to think about how to incorporate a digital transformation [in our roads]."

One for the Road

Dr. Lu, a professor at Purdue's Lyles School of Civil Engineering, is working to innovate the concrete used to build highways.

In an interview with the Engineering Management Institute (EMI), Dr. Lu pointed out that about 43% of public roads in the US are in poor to mediocre condition, which directly or indirectly causes people to lose four billion hours and three billion gallons of fuel every year. 

She said that going forward, the very materials that the roads are made of would need to have the ability to digitally communicate with the engineers using technology embedded beneath the surface.

To that end, the CII is working to develop technology that traditional infrastructure such as roads and bridges could use to interact with construction crews and engineers to minimize damage and prevent break-downs. 

Dr. Lu has developed sensors that can more accurately tell engineers when freshly paved concrete has completely cured and is ready to take on heavy traffic, reducing the likelihood of the concrete developing cracks and needing repair. Dr. Lu believes fewer repairs throughout the year could save millions of dollars per year and mean fewer traffic slowdowns due to construction.

"The smart roads will ensure safety, mobility, sustainability, and security of our daily commute," Dr. Lu told Lifewire in an email discussion. "[They'll help achieve this] by reducing accident rates, increasing traffic volume/flow, and having less frequent repairs." 

Talking about the other related developments at the CII in the EMI interview, Dr. Lu said another aspect of intelligent infrastructure is self-healing materials that can fix small cracks on their own, thereby reducing the impact of corrosion and other durability issues essentially prolonging the maintenance frequency of the roads. 

"We need to think about how to incorporate a digital transformation [in our roads]."

Jetsonian Travel

Dr. Lu told us that another aspect of the future of roads is that they’ll better connect autonomous vehicles, and human-driven vehicles, with the underlying infrastructure.

Technology, when it comes to mobility, has advanced at an impressive pace in recent years. Dr. Lu believes our infrastructure wasn’t built to support new technologies, such as self-driving cars, which present another challenge for the existing infrastructure, but also an opportunity to further extend the benefits of intelligent roads.

"[Intelligence in infrastructure] will be achieved by advanced technologies in the smart roads/bridges, such as embedded Internet of Things (IoT) sensors, AI-guided traffic control algorithms and adaptive traffic signals, and zero-carbon materials,” Dr. Lu said.

This resonates with Intel who in their whitepaper on smart road technology pointed out that traffic snarls cost the average American almost a hundred hours in their lifetime, and about $1,377 every year. "Smart road technology can track vehicles and adjust traffic lights when there are fewer or no cars approaching, helping prevent bumper-to-bumper traffic. This could help drivers and passengers save 9.4 hours each year," Intel wrote.

To that end, researchers at the Fraunhofer Institute in Germany are working on the "KI4LSA" project, which uses artificial intelligence (AI) to enable smart, predictive light switching

A car driving on a road with sensor signals overlaying the road.

AndrzeJ Wojcicki / Science Photo Library / Getty Images

Furthermore, Cubic's GRIDSMART detection and its adaptive traffic signal control technology, SynchroGreen, is already being installed across the US, in order to help guide vehicles through intersections more efficiently.   

As of May 2022, Dr. Lu's team has collaborated with the Indiana Department of Transportation to deploy smart roads laced with sensors. “However, 8 other states will be conducting the pilot implementation of the technology this year including CA, TX, ND, MO, CO, TN, UT, and IA," Dr. Lu confirmed to us.

By improving traffic flow and reducing congestion, smart roads will help improve energy efficiency and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, making them more beneficial to the environment as well.

"We don’t need to completely rebuild existing infrastructure to make it smarter. Implementing sensors is low-hanging fruit,” said Dr. Lu.

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