Roads & Infrastructure Magazine talks to Australian Road Research Board CEO Michael Caltabiano about the organisation’s new national transport research centre and what it means for the future of the Australian transport sector.
Flying cars, robot vacuum cleaners, holograms, smart watches – when it aired in the 1960s, classic cartoon series The Jetsons painted a very surreal and exciting, tech-driven picture of the distant future.
Fast-forward to 2018 and upon officially opening the new Australian Road Research Board’s (ARRB) National Transport Research Centre, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Infrastructure and Transport Michael McCormack told attendees that industry was close to realising many of these once unimaginable visions of the future.
“Our transport future is right here and now – it’s on us now. The George Jetson philosophy and visions of the future are happening right before us and you people are front and centre of that,” Mr. McCormack said.
Addressing 250 leaders and representatives from across Australia’s government and private sector at the opening this September, Mr. McCormack spoke of the significance of the new research centre, based in Port Melbourne, Victoria, and what it may herald for the future of Australia’s transport sector.
“You people are going to make such a difference to ordinary, everyday Australians in ways that they will never know because the future of road transport, the future of road safety, the future of better roads, indeed, better transport, is with you. It’s in your hands, it’s in your minds – the vision that you have each and every day.”
For ARRB CEO Michael Caltabiano, the new state-of-the-art facility represents not only a marked step forward for the research organisation, but for Australia’s research capabilities as a whole. He talks to Roads & Infrastructure Magazine about the new facility and how it’s putting Australia back into the spotlight.
“What we’re doing here is unique in the world. We’ve integrated a highly efficient smart materials lab with an open plan, operational office. The only thing separating the two parts is glass,” Mr. Caltabiano explains.
Part of the idea behind such a different approach to layout stems from the desire to evoke new ideas, collaboration and different points of view – a pathway to progress, according to the research organisation’s head.
“It’s looking at materials, pavements, safety aspects and linking those across the business, whether it’s marketing, sales or research,” Mr. Caltabiano says.
“The future is all about big ideas, collaboration and different ways of thinking about issues we need to solve. It’s more than an office – it’s an innovation hotspot.”
The facility has five core aims within the road transport field. The first is a focus on future transport – connected and autonomous vehicles – and the second major aim is investigating future infrastructure and what materials are going to be used in the construction and maintenance of roads.
“The third is looking at next generation asset management. The national road network is the single biggest asset and we must get better at managing it,” Mr. Caltabiano asserts.
The fourth core aim is traffic safety and transport safety. “It’s unacceptable that 1250 people a year lose their lives and we must have a step change in approach. It’s root and branch change in the way we’re designing, constructing and operating roads.”
The fifth and final focus for the centre is on resilience and sustainability – factors Mr. Caltabiano says are crucial to delivering infrastructure for Australia, such as roads that can withstand flooding.
To address these five key subsectors of the transport infrastructure sector, the centre includes a readily equipped materials research laboratory with cutting edge technology from Europe and the United States, as well as mobile- and IT-integrated collaborative spaces.
“It’s open for business. The opening day was really about showing the opportunities to collaborate and that the space is an open zone for people to come in and develop projects,” Mr. Caltabiano explains.
Whether it’s state road authorities or researchers, Mr. Caltabiano says the centre is equipped to facilitate collaboration between different researchers and stakeholders on major transport projects, including everything from asphalt pavement technology through to connected and electric vehicles.
“We went against the grain in the design. Rather than building an office with 80 desks for 100 staff, with many working out on the road, we built an office for 80 staff with 150 desks to facilitate collaboration,” he says.
For instance, the Amy Gillett Foundation – a national organisation with a mission to reduce serious injury and death
of cyclists in Australia – is a permanent fixture in the office because, according to Mr. Caltabiano, it keeps the ARRB team grounded about who they do the work for.
The facility presents not just research opportunities for industry and all levels of government to collaborate nationally, but internationally too – an area where Mr. Caltabiano says there is a missing link in Australia.
“It’s been a weakness for some time and we’re now starting to bridge the gap through this future research laboratory. We’ve spent the past two years reconnecting with the rest of the world and we’re now doing projects with the UK, China and Germany. We are now operating at a global level,” he says.
“The challenge now is to actively bring industry up to world best practice. We can’t just adopt practices and technology. We need to understand how they work to Australian conditions and in an Australian way.”
Through shifting the focus on transport research to the global level, Mr. Caltabiano says ARRB is reconnecting with six other international research laboratories, including the Transport Research Laboratory in the United Kingdom, the French institute of science and technology for transport, spatial planning, development and networks (IFSTTAR) and German Federal Highway Research Institute (BASt), as a way of further bridging the collaborative research gap.
“We’re actively bringing all of these research labs together in Melbourne to potentially form a global research alliance,” he adds.
To help facilitate further growth and knowledge sharing, the centre also includes the National Interest Services (NIS).
Funded by Australian state road authorities and the Federal Government, the NIS is a national database of research, knowledge and expertise in the transport space, compiled both digitally and physically into a dedicated space within the building.
“We do have a physical library which includes books from as far back as the early 1900s. We did that deliberately to the show tangible link to the past,” Mr. Caltabiano says, adding that, however, the move to digital resources is a great example of how the facility is taking road transport research into the 21st century.
“Our NIS website gets 157,000 unique hits per year – it’s an absolutely important part of what this facility will do.”
Likewise, ARRB is continuing to invest in digital resources to assist local government, asset managers and road researchers and constructors. Most recently, the organisation released its guidelines on the use of high friction surface treatments – compounds designed to make roads more skid resistant, for example.
The guidelines are aimed at assisting local councils and road asset managers in properly using the treatments, which ARRB believes could help reduce the road toll by making roads more skid resistant, especially at known black spots and pedestrian crossings.
“There’s a gap in our national knowledge but my instincts tell me a factor largely contributing to these safety issues is probably skid resistance,” Mr. Caltabiano says.
“This is a very good example of what ARRB is aiming to do – increase development of guides such as this, which is just one of the many to be unleashed very soon.”