Opinion

An Intelligent Deal for Infrastructure

The United States has more than 4 million miles of public roadways, including 160,955 miles under the National Highway System, one of the longest systems in the world. As the Biden administration and Congress continue to work on a plan to address America’s infrastructure needs, nobody disputes that our roads and bridges need fixing. But what about upgrading?

Virtually none of America’s roads have the technological capabilities to interface with the smart technologies that are becoming ubiquitous in American vehicles.  It is common sense that both roads and vehicles be able to complement – and communicate with – one another.

Intelligent infrastructure has incredible potential to enhance public safety.

As the only person to serve as both the administrator of the Federal Highway Administration and the head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, I know the crash statistics all too well. The government’s current fatality estimates are dreadful – approximately 38,680 people died on our roads in 2020, up 7.2 percent from the previous year despite a drop in vehicle miles traveled.

Using pre-pandemic numbers, roughly 2.8 million people were injured in approximately 6.8 million police-reported motor vehicle crashes on our roadways. Centering the next generation of safety advancements around infrastructure such as intelligent laneways, intersections, traffic signals, road signs and crosswalks would reduce the risks to all who enjoy America’s roads.

Building the next generation of smart roads is key to saving lives and sustaining America’s economic competitive advantage.

Consistent with the Chinese Communist Party’s push to make China the world leader in digital infrastructure, local governments within China are offering lucrative incentives and favorable regulatory policies to companies testing smart roads and AV technologies in their communities. While the United States drags its feet, pilot programs like Baidu’s driverless robotaxi service in Beijing help China spur key advancements in areas such as 5G, artificial intelligence, data centers and electric vehicle charging technologies.

Polling shows widespread support from both Republicans and Democrats for funding improvements made to bridges, tunnels and roads.  The current work on Capitol Hill of rehabilitating the arteries of the American economy is a good start. But as our representatives plan to repair our roads to be safer, they should also build them to be smarter. The millions being spent by the U.S. Department of Transportation for connected vehicle pilot programs should be billions.

For example, devoting resources to developing smart roads can lead to sensing devices at intersections warning drivers about on-coming speeders and traffic light runners. Apps can provide real-time traffic flow insights, including specifics regarding work zones, that are helpful to today’s drivers, but will be crucial for autonomous vehicles in the future.

My former agency, the Federal Highway Administration, is currently testing pedestrian safety technologies, including whether vehicles can be warned by the infrastructure when a pedestrian — perhaps looking down at a phone — steps off the curb too soon. We can use artificial intelligence to “teach” a road to warn a driver when a pedestrian is at risk, and feed data into a vehicle’s systems.

Funding tomorrow’s roads today is an investment in public safety, economic advancement and the United States’ role as a global leader. Accelerating federal investment in intelligent infrastructure is one stop this Congress and administration can’t afford to miss.

 

Nicole Nason is the chief safety officer and head of external affairs at Cavnue; she previously served as the administrator of the Federal Highway Administration (2019-2021) and administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (2006-2008).

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