In anticipation of autonomous vehicle technology, smart highways are being built to improve the driver experience and asset management. InEight’s Rob Bryant explains why this technology of tomorrow should be a staple in construction now.
The State of Electric Vehicle’s (EVs) in Australia 2019 report, by the EV Council of Australia revealed the global expansion of EV fleets, with more than 2.1 million electric vehicles sold in 2018. This marked a 64 per cent increase from 2017.
The same is reflected in Australia, according to the report sales of EVs in Australia in the first half of 2019 nearly doubled compared to the first half of 2018.
With the rise of EV’s comes the rise of autonomous vehicles and related technologies. While there are different stages of vehicle automation, cars sold in Australia today already feature some of these early stages of autonomy. Lane keep assist and autonomous emergency braking are examples of this.
The evolution of autonomous vehicle technology will in turn be the catalyst for change in the construction of a vehicle’s foundation, roads.
Known as smart highways, the technology that is set to match and complement autonomous and electric vehicles is beginning to be adopted during the design and construction of Australian road projects.
Smart highways include roads with sensors built into the surface or overheads, that monitor the traffic flow, ground conditions and overall performance of a road.
As a major construction project management software provider, InEight is closely watching the rise of this technology and has recognised the importance of planning, design and documentation when creating the smart highways of tomorrow.
Executive Vice President of InEight Asia Pacific, Rob Bryant says the idea behind smart highways is to digitise a roadway asset so it ceases to be solely a hard asset and becomes a digital asset as well.
“The most sophisticated examples of smart highways monitor the surface and the environment of the highway for purposes of maintenance as well as detecting any movements or issues that may be occurring including traffic flows and the weather.”
“EVs and self-drive vehicles paired with smart highways which have the ability to contain information about the gradient, weather conditions, surface conditions and traffic conditions has exciting potential in applications for public transport, commercial and private autonomous vehicles,” Bryant says.
If vehicles are able to pick up information from the roadway in real time, such as congestion information, condition reports and weather outlooks, the driver experience could become very different to what we know now.
“The ability to monitor use, as well as enhance use for owners of automated vehicles is important. That could really incentivise the use a road for commercial vehicle operators, public transport and private vehicle users,” Bryant says.
“When we think about how people will use roads in the future, smart highways present the reason to have roads that not only avoid suburban traffic but automate journeys. Making the driving experience more manageable so that drivers know what is happening on the road and what is happening to their vehicle.”
Investing in this type of technology has the potential to turn roads from simple pieces of infrastructure to commercial assets.
“Both parties are getting a lot more information and for owners, the technology provides better return because the road becomes a more valuable asset,” Bryant says.
“Smart highways can be treated as a railway without rails, there is a predictability as to how the vehicle is going to travel, the information and signalling is part of that. You still have the flexibility everyone enjoys of a road, being able to enter and exit as you need, so it’s worth it.”
Bryant says the technology incorporated with smart highways will prompt greater use of road assets because commercial and public vehicles want to use the road. This applies especially if the road provides them with information and an overall experience not found on other roads.
The benefits of smart highways do not stop with the road user, there are also a number of significant advantages provided to the road owner and contractor.
InEight was involved with the construction of the West Connex project in NSW, which is constructed as a smart highway, using InEight solutions through design and construction.
“We have remained engaged with the operator as they have started to access those same drawings, documents and models to help them move into the maintenance phase,” Bryant says.
“I think that is a good example of where the digital aspect becomes just as valuable as the physical components of a build. It allows them to see how the asset is constructed and what they need to consider as they plan and budget maintenance works too.”
Bryant says building a smart highway is much more complex than a traditional road. Digital twins can be advantageous during the construction and design phase of these roads in order to track the asset over its lifecycle.
“A new level of requirement comes in, for the specification of smart highways so it means there is more involved than tarmac and concrete. There are a lot more electronic and digital aspects to road building now,” he says.
“Lots of different work has to go on to build sections of a smart roadway so digital building allows contractors to take a much more detailed view of materials required, schedules associated with building and then have that referenced in the construction phase and through to the operation and maintenance phases.”
The technology used to create smart highways can also monitor safety concerns or user issues and can enable these to be rectified promptly.
“It’s expensive and time consuming to send crews out to issues. If you can do that digitally and remotely, as you can with a smart highway, obviously there are benefits,” Bryant says.
While completely autonomous vehicles are not yet used widely on Australian roads, levels of this technology are being developed and integrated into cars now.
To prepare for the drivers of the future, roads can look to smart highway technology now.
“It’s not an isolated event anymore to just build a road. Smart roads are roads with IP built into them,” Bryant says.
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