I recently posted an article on smarter cars, and how they help us as smarter workers, but what about the roads and bridges they drive on?  With over 75,000 of bridges in the U.S. being marked as “Structurally Deficient” now is the time to consider, “what can we do to improve on them.”  How can we make them safer, make them last longer, and make them smarter?

A study done in 2011 by the American society of Civil Engineers (Transportation experts across both public and private sectors) found that our failing roads and infrastructure could have severe economic consequences if not handled properly.  The study called “Failure to Act” states that U.S. businesses and households will suffer if nothing is done.  By the year 2020, businesses are looking at paying an increase of 430 billion dollars in transportation costs.  They also estimate U.S. exports to shrink to about $28 billion a year and individual households to lower their annual income by about $7,000.  This is all due to failing roads and bridges.

Part of the problem, according to experts, is the “patch and repair” strategy we have been using.  With the current technology in place, we simply don’t have the time or resources to do the upkeep needed with this strategy, and are falling further and further behind.  Many fear another tragedy, such as the interstate 35W bridge in Minneapolis collapsing during rush hour in 2007, killing 13 and injuring 145.  With our roads in such bad condition, even I started to wonder, how is making our roads smarter going to help with their condition?

One of the reasons it is so difficult to find roads and bridges that need repair, or to even start the repair on a damaged area, is that they have to be inspected first.  This determines which areas need repair the most, what order the repairs go in, what kind of crews need to be hired, and how long the roads will be out of service.  This process can bottleneck repairs, so how do we speed it up?  Sensors have become much more advanced, and can be built into the road.  These sensors can detect damage of the road or bridge, report its stability, and can help engineers track any problems.  This can limit or even eliminate the need for inspections, speeding up the process of repair by a huge amount.  It might even save lives by giving early warning about a structural fault.

Building infrastructure that can communicate with vehicles will also benefit the roads more than you would think.  As I mentioned in my article “When Cars Talk” vehicles now have the ability to communicate with each other, giving early warnings, assisting in lane changes, and when connection with the infrastructure can let you know of sharp curves or sudden stops.  These technologies can help our roads by preventing accidents that could damage our road ways, and also by clearing up traffic congestion.  The less time cars spend on the road, the less stress they put on it.

This technology could also lead to smarter parking, something I would love to have.  It works like this.  Imagine you need to go downtown to pick up something, but you don’t want to get down there and not be able to find parking.  If the infrastructure was updated, an app on your phone could tell you how many spots are open in the parking garage.  About 30% of traffic congestion in urban environments is people driving in circles looking for parking (I’m looking at you Santa Cruz ಠ__ಠ ) and that could be helped tremendously by this.

Smarter cars, smarter roads, better infrastructure; it is the future of our transportation.  Without it we will crumble, so let’s not just “patch and repair” it, let’s build it bigger, better, smarter.