How Emerging Technologies Could Transform Infrastructure

As one award-winning proposal demonstrates, there's much that could be done to get a lot more out of our existing transportation network.
March 6, 2018
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A driver tests Audi's autonomous vehicle in Washington, D.C. (AP)
By Anthony Barrs  |  Contributor
An MBA candidate at the University of California at Berkeley
By Baiyu Chen  |  Contributor
A researcher at the University of California at Berkeley
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After decades of lackluster investment, misinvestment and disinvestment, how does America reinvigorate its infrastructure spending to get the most impact from every dollar?

The Trump administration's own infrastructure plan might hold a key. As the White House put it in a fact sheet previewing the proposal, the administration wants to "encourage the development of new, transformative infrastructure projects."

Key words: "new," "transformative."

The president's plan has come in for plenty of criticism, particularly from those looking for Washington to lead the way on spending. And certainly there is a need for more investment in our roads, bridges and other vital public works. But the White House proposal captures an important point: America's infrastructure is primed for disruption. Technology and innovation have revolutionized every corner of our economy, including transit and mobility. And now is the time to capitalize on that innovation and build a national infrastructure plan that looks toward the infrastructure we need over the next 50 years.

There are already examples of transformative infrastructure projects under development. And they are thrilling. For instance, if the Elon Musk-inspired Hyperloop becomes reality, it could move passengers in capsules riding on air in underground tubes at hundreds of miles per hour.

But an infrastructure program needn't be as ambitious as the Hyperloop to be genuinely transformative. There are smaller steps that are available to us right now -- innovations that harvest the benefits of emerging technologies such as autonomous vehicles and machine learning and use them in novel ways that improve our quality of life while stimulating economic growth.

We had the opportunity to develop one such solution last year, when we entered a crowdsourced competition organized by the Association of Equipment Manufacturers called the Infrastructure Vision 2050 Challenge. AEM's call to ideators: design and pitch your plan for a transportation system that would move people more safely and efficiently than today's existing network.

The submissions were judged by a diverse panel consisting of representatives from a variety of industries and concluded at CONEXPO-CON/AGG 2017, the world's largest construction-industry trade show. It was, in essence, a chance for the grassroots community to share their best ideas for transformative projects to those eventually responsible for building our infrastructure of the future.

Our winning submission, called Hyperlane, would designate a lane of existing roadways for autonomous vehicles while utilizing dynamically priced tolls to keep traffic flowing. Hyperlane traffic could move at more than 100 mph. This approach could increase traffic capacity by 400 percent over traditional interstate-type highways by leveraging the efficiencies of new sensors and self-driving technology. Moreover, it is a scalable solution that could be incorporated easily into existing infrastructure.

Back when we designed Hyperlane, our motivation was simple: Could we remove the pain that comes from stifling traffic congestion in a way that was inexpensive? At the time, we were graduate students in computer engineering and business who had recently traveled to several countries where we marveled at their superior and more efficient infrastructure. Our experience inspired us to question what would work and operate successfully here in the United States. As entrepreneurial thinkers (or at least we hope so) we saw a pain point that was ready for disruption.

Our passion for the Hyperlane concept and our win at the Infrastructure Vision 2050 Challenge finale earned us a prize. But more importantly, it opened new relationships and inspired us to try to bring this idea to life. An investment in U.S. infrastructure from Washington would further open opportunities for forward-looking solutions like Hyperlane to press forward and challenge the status quo. The innovations are ready and waiting for the green light.

So, a year after our first winning pitch, here's our next pitch to President Trump and Congress:

There are already fresh and game-changing ideas out there for modernizing American infrastructure. We competed against dozens of formidable proposals from smart and passionate people across the world -- and that was just a small subset of what is out there. This moment in time feels special, and America stands at the forefront of this unique era of innovation - with an investment from Washington, the U.S. can harness those transformative ideas and use them to shape new infrastructure and create an energized 21st century era of growth.

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